Posted on October 30, 2012 by Pat Hartman
One of the worst and most underreported aspects of the homeless crisis is the amount of money wasted by cities in their attempts to not deal with it, or to handle it in ways ranging from sloppy to deeply criminal. Boise, Idaho, for example, really knows how to flush dollars down the toilet.
Briefly summarized here is a story reported by Rebecca Boone for Associated Press. Back in the 1990s, the city worked with an agency called Community House (CH), but the relationship was rocky, and in 2003, the city announced that its shelter would hitherto be run by the Boise Rescue Mission, which serves only men. The much more vulnerable women and children would be left out.
Community House filed a complaint under the Fair Housing Act contending that the move amounted to discrimination against the homeless women and children currently living there because it would leave them with no place to go.
The city went ahead with its plans, so CH filed a federal lawsuit, and the jury found that the city had violated the state constitution and engaged in retaliatory behavior, and, most of all, discriminated against women and children. Eventually, Boise was ordered to pay $1 million dollars to CH. But all the attorneys who have worked on the case for seven years need to be paid, too, and they intend to charge the city nearly another $2 million for their fees.
But the city intends to have the discrimination and retaliation case overturned, which would leave both CH and the lawyers unpaid, and, incidentally, pile up even more legal fees. Not to worry, a spokesperson assured the public. The party line is, even if the worst happens, and the monetary award is upheld, it won’t cost the citizens, because the city’s insurer will pay.
Does that make any sense? Surely, it’s the taxpayers who buy the insurance policy, and will continue to do so after the rates are raised, in the wake of a big payout. If that isn’t the way it works, someone please explain. And what has all this expenditure on legal talent accomplished, as far as actually putting anybody under a roof?
Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, NY, a story is brewing whose ugliness increases daily. We know about it due to an impressive series of articles by investigative reporter Andrew Rice. The basic fact is that more than 45,000 New Yorkers are in the homeless system, some housed already at a monthly cost of $3,300 per unit, which is more than the market rate in Manhattan.
Of course, the price is described as including “services,” which mainly seem to consist of a hefty security staff. If the amount includes nurses, counselors, dietitians, and other personnel who do something for the residents, other than keep the rowdy ones in line, such expenditure would be justified. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Rice explains how they do things in New York:
Shelter contracts can work in a variety of ways. Sometimes a property owner like Lapes bids directly and then subcontracts to a service provider. Sometimes, as is the case in Carroll Gardens, a service provider bids after having identified a property to lease. Few landlords, though, are willing to turn their buildings into shelters. That means the city must pay a premium, sometimes to sketchy characters.
The big story right now concerns Carroll Gardens, a building originally containing 10 apartments, that is being remodeled into a 170-bed shelter. What’s not to like? Several things, apparently, including pervasive secrecy and the invocation of “emergency contract rules” rationalized by the need to finish the work in a hurry before winter sets in.
That is the clearest aspect of the tale, which quickly devolves into a complicated mess concerning the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) and several unsavory characters, none of whom deign to return the reporter’s messages. Rice has been tracing all the people who stand to make money off the current project, and it’s not looking good.
D.H.S. prepares to award a no-bid contract worth millions of dollars to the agency’s recently departed commissioner, who appears, in turn, to be renting the building that will house the shelter from one of his newly established nonprofit’s own board members… While few specifics [...] have been disclosed, public records indicate that the bidder has an unusually involved relationship with the building’s landlord, who stands to profit from the deal.
The building appears to be owned by Alan Lapes, a convicted felon once characterized by the New York Post as “the public face for bona fide bad guys.” More than 20 shelters are run for the DHS by a shady outfit called Aguila Incorporated that was accused by the Comptroller of overcharging the city by almost a million dollars last year. And who is in charge of Aguila? The former DHS commissioner, a fellow named Robert Hess, also boss of Housing Solutions, which has three board members, two of them business associates of this Lapes character.
Then, there’s Amsterdam Hospitality, headed by Stuart Podolsky, whose expertise in previous ventures consisted of terrorizing tenants out of rent-controlled apartments (thus causing a great amount of homelessness) so the buildings they were driven from could be turned to much more profitable uses. Not surprisingly, Lapes also used to work for them, and all kinds of dicey things went on in the shelters he supervised. Rice says:
In recent years, scandals involving politically connected nonprofits and public-service contracts have led to corruption indictments and tough new state regulations on executive compensation and oversight.
Here, too, the legal costs have been ridiculous, including those incurred in several more lawsuits along the way, which Rice catalogues. Really, the whole sordid story deserves to be read in its entirety, and not just read, but studied and taken to heart as an object lesson, by any city that truly intends to house the homeless, and not merely enrich a battalion of attorneys and a legion of thieves.
Source: “Lawyers for homeless shelter seek almost $2M,” Idahostatesman.com, 10/25/12
Source: “A New Carroll Gardens Homeless Shelter Built on Old Relationships,” CapitalNewYork.com, 10/15/12
Source: “The controversial landlord behind a mystery-shrouded Carroll Gardens shelter project,” CapitalNewYork.com, 10/18/12
Source: “Hidden in a Carroll Gardens shelter project, an owner with ‘terror’ on his resume,” CapitalNewYork.com, 10/22/12
Image by TijsB.
Posted on October 23, 2012 by Pat Hartman
The fictional character of Dracula was inspired by the real Prince Vlad of Romania, sarcastically described here by Robert Davenport in his Roots of the Rich and Famous:
Realizing that the plight of the homeless was an important problem in his country, he had all of the homeless people invited to a huge feast in a specially prepared building. They were then fed until they could barely move, at which point Dracula had the doors closed and the building burned down, thus ‘eliminating’ the problem.
We have come a long way since then, and some locales have made more progress than others. Last week, House the Homeless blog looked at the advantages of housing the homeless, especially the small percentage who place a disproportionate strain on the budgets of jails and courts.
And fire departments. Last year in Albuquerque, for instance, nearly 80% of one fire station’s calls (3,000 of them) rendered aid to homeless people with substance addictions. Is it really in a city’s best interest to employ fire trucks for anything but fires?
In the same city, the “Heading Home” initiative was planned to create publicly funded housing for the 75 most vulnerable homeless citizens. A single individual had logged 120 emergency room visits and 30 inpatient stays within a single year, at a cost of more than $100,000.
Malcolm Gladwell mentions a study undertaken by the University of California’s medical center in San Diego. It lasted a year and a half, and concentrated on 15 chronically homeless people who were either mentally ill, addicted, or both. Guess how many ER visits they collectively racked up? A total of 417. One man came in 87 times during that period. Those 15 people, in that time frame, averaged medical bills of $100,000 each.
As surveys show, a great percentage of people experiencing homelessness also suffer from chronic illnesses and disabilities. According to federal law, anyone who shows up at an emergency room has to be evaluated and treated. While this is a good thing, it also leads to medical centers being inappropriately forced to serve as de facto temporary housing. Barbara Williams writes:
At hospitals, the homeless know they can get a hot meal and escape the cold or rain for a few hours when shelters are full. Emergency rooms have become such a lifeline that some return to the same ER every few weeks, while others rotate among hospitals so they don’t show up too often at the same facility…
Some call it “working the system,” but the system is the only game in town. If a patient spends three nights in a hospital, Medicaid considers the person eligible for a nursing home. But even if a hospital wants to go that route, it’s often hard to justify a three-night hospital stay, in order to fulfill that requirement. In some states, such as New Jersey, the law mandates a “safe discharge” plan. That means somewhere to stay, a way to get meds, and followup office visits if necessary (and we will be talking more about “safe discharge”).
A reader from Rochester, NY, describes the limited efforts that cause schizophrenic and bipolar tenants to be “dumped” into state-subsidized apartment buildings where they frighten or even threaten the tenants who are merely old and/or disabled. Three successful suicides had been completed since she lived there:
It is interesting that the state gives them food stamps to use, gives them vouchers for furniture and clothing, but does not provide the one essential of having someone make sure they take their meds.
It is counter-productive to insist that people be addiction-free before they can be housed. The most success has been achieved with a “housing first” policy. Supportive care ensures that people who need meds do indeed take them, and performs many other services that prevent the disbursement of large amounts of money in the near future. Plus, on the do-the-right-thing side of the equation, merely providing a roof is not enough, not when the tenants use it to jump from.
In Denver, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless began a “housing first” program in 2003. When the results were compiled, they showed that emergency-room visits decreased to such an extent that the taxpayers paid 73% less for the care of each participant — averaging only $31,500 per person. Portland, ME, found that permanent supportive housing reduced the cost of mental health services by 57%.
Heather Scoffield reports on Canadian research which proved that bringing the chronically homeless who are mentally ill into supportive housing cut the expense by more than half:
One study shows that taxpayers pay between $66,000 and $120,000 to cover the basic annual costs for prison or psychiatric hospitals for just one homeless person… For chronically homeless people who are frequent users of social services, the annual savings are $25,899 per person.
When substance abuse is the only issue, “housing first” offers a strong possibility that the person will re-enter the larger community, making space in the facility for someone in greater need. Often, however, those with mental illness might never become self-sufficient. But at least supportive housing can keep them out of the costly emergency rooms and prison cells. How often does the chance come along to do good AND save money? Really, it’s a no-brainer.
Source: “Housing Homeless Saves Public Money,” DailyLobo.com, 04/25/11
Source: “Why problems like homelessness may be easier to solve than to manage,” Gladwell.com, 02/13/06
Source: “More homeless in NJ using hospital ERs for shelter and food,” NorthJersey.com, 05/25/12
Source: “Housing First: County poised for major shift in dealing with homelessness,” TDN.com, 05/14/11
Source: “Cheaper to buy homeless their own place,” The Province, 09/25/12
Image by Ed Schipul.
Posted on October 2, 2012 by Pat Hartman
From Costa Mesa, Orange County, CA, an online commentator known as Ladya Oo writes:
I have a friend who is temporarily living in his SUV while he desperately looks for housing that he can afford. Costa Mesa police just gave him a $1,000 ticket for sleeping in his SUV.
Not long ago, the Homeless Task Force — which was only established last January and has already been disbanded — recommended demolishing a picnic shelter in Lions Park. The reason, of course, was that homeless people congregated around it. Housed people visiting the community center, rec center, and library were inconvenienced and discomfited by their encounters with the unhoused. Journalist Sean Greene quotes Councilman Gary Monahan:
That picnic shelter, it needs to go [...] as fast as we can get it done.
Way to problem-solve! Unbelievably, the city could not find a better use for $60,000 than the demolition of a picnic shelter. Lions Park will be revamped with “family-size” picnic shelters, a running track, and a playground. They’re going to spend over a million on that project. They hired two rangers for the park, tightened up bicycle parking regulations, and closed the library for four months worth of renovation.
The city’s latest count only found 60 “street” or “out of care” homeless people, but claimed there were at least 18 encampments, “some of them large.” So the math has got to be off, somehow. Only two years ago, one of the local soup kitchens reported feeding 300 people per day. There are about 120 “sober-living homes” and a number of motels for temporary housing, including a dozen that are defined as “problematic,” and the rules governing them have been tightened.
Whatever the number of homeless people in Costa Mesa, 28 of them have been branded as chronic offenders who commit major nuisances like public drunkenness, public excretion (and/or indecent exposure), smoking in a public park, and illegal camping. In the first six months of this year, the 28 chronic offenders racked up 112 citations and 24 arrests.
The city developed “partnerships with local residents and business owners to collaborate and reduce the impacts associated with chronic individuals,” and an “ongoing integrated law enforcement/legal strategy to ensure that chronic offenders are prosecuted to the greatest extent of the law,” all of which sounds a bit ominous. But that’s nothing compared to this classic quotation from Costa Mesa’s Assistant CEO, which makes the homeless sound like an infestation of cockroaches:
Unless you are reducing the numbers, they are scattering to other places.
And how are things working out? Well, the tickets for smoking and other infractions, and the cessation of programs distributing food there, have encouraged the homeless to abandon Lions Park. People with nowhere to go started turning up around the historical society and a nearby condominium complex. A recent report says:
Administrators at Tuesday’s City Council meeting blamed the homeless population’s dispersion for the recent increases in burglary, drug use, vandalism and other crimes on Ford Road.
To be fair, Costa Mesa also made some positive plans for actually alleviating the homelessness situation, which can be found in the “City Council Staff Report“ (PDF).
In August, merchants in Austin, TX, felt buyer’s remorse over the installation of many benches during a multi-million dollar downtown beautification project. Problem is, homeless people insisted on sitting on the benches. Seven police officers patrol the area during the day and, Jessica Holloway reports:
They say enforcing the no-sit, no-lie ordinance is a never-ending cycle.
A park was shut for remodeling, and the homeless, it is said, have increasingly penetrated the downtown area. Businesses want all the services in central Austin to move away and take the homeless with them. And the benches were removed at the end of August. Is the city cutting off its nose to spite its face? No doubt. Throwing out the baby with the bath water? Absolutely.
An amazing, exuberant book, called Street Reclaiming: Creating Livable Streets and Vibrant Communities, rests on an important philosophical basis. Author David Engwicht reminds us that public streets and squares were the birthplace of democracy and the central stage for the democratic process. The city, he says, ought to be a collective enterprise with the street as its lifeblood. The streets ought to be a place of socio-diversity, a marketplace of ideas and bastion of free speech, a feeder of creativity. Public places should be everybody’s outdoor living room, the “social and cultural epicenter of neighborhood life.” This is why in its glory days, Venice, CA, was visited by sociologists from all over the world.
Reclaiming the streets does not mean kicking out the homeless, but including them. Healthy street life supports informal support mechanisms, human-to-human interactions. When this is taken away, people must rely on government agencies or charitable organizations, and help is depersonalized. Marginalized people, who may or may not be homeless, include senior citizens, eccentrics, children, the disabled, the “ethnic.”
As a person with paraplegia reminded me one day: ‘There is an old person or disabled person in every one of us just waiting to get out.’
How do those on the margin get to contribute their invaluable gifts to society? Or, to change the question, how does mainstream society access this diversity of life experience held in store by those on the margins? Almost exclusively through spontaneous encounters… To destroy the spontaneous encounter realm of the city is therefore to rob ourselves and the city of the contribution these people on the margin have to make.
The greatness of any city can be judged by how well it integrates those on the margins into community life.
Media Bonus: “Everything Must Change“
The actual song starts about 3 minutes in. If you can ignore the background noise, the guy has a voice so rich you can imagine the whole orchestral arrangement behind it instead.
Source: “Costa Mesa to demolish picnic shelter that attracts homeless,” The Orange County Register, 05/02/12
Source: “Homeless blamed for crime increase,” Daily Pilot, 09/06/12
Source: “City considers removing benches at new homeless hotspot,” KVUE.com, 08/23/12
Source: “Street Reclaiming,” Amazon.com
Image by grendelkahn.
Posted on September 11, 2012 by Pat Hartman
A while back, House the Homeless blog looked at how cities prepare for the Olympic Games, political gatherings, and other large-scale events. Mostly, they take extreme measures to remove street people, giving them bus tickets to anywhere else, or corralling them in an area unlikely to attract tourists. Sometimes they’re kept off the streets by relatively benign means, like free tickets to museums or movies.
If their papers are not in order, it’s easy enough to just turn them over to la migra. Tales are told of increased arrests and imprisonments for petty violations. Makeshift shacks and lean-tos are of course demolished, and the Potemkin Village syndrome comes into play. (Supposedly, when the ruler of Russia, Catherine the Great, was touring around to inspect her country, some functionary named Potemkin traveled ahead and built impressive-looking facades of prosperous villages, like film sets.) In those circumstances, people very much resent being moved around like dirt swept under a rug.
In the county that contains Charlotte, NC, site of this year’s Democratic Convention, about 5,000 people are experiencing homelessness, and fewer than 1,000 regularly sleep in shelter beds. Some live in cars.
Apparently quite a few fall under a slightly different definition of homelessness, where technically the person has a place to sleep, even if it is a very insecure and temporary position on somebody’s couch. It is estimated that fewer than 100 hardcore, long-term homeless people live totally outdoors. The situation has certainly not been improving. According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, in 2010, family homelessness in Charlotte increased by 36%, and in 2011, increased another 21%.
During the convention planning, Mark Price kept track on behalf of the Charlotte Observer. A group called Charlotte Center City Partners took a great deal of interest in humane alternatives. The director of the local Men’s Shelter met with the convention promoters; and took on extra staff and trained them to help the street people understand the rules and restrictions that would apply during the convention. There were a lot of places you couldn’t go with a backpack or a shopping cart, but also plenty of information about how to stay out of trouble.
The city passed a new law against camping on public property. The transit center was moved to a temporary location several blocks away, and the main library was just plain closed for the duration. To make up for the loss of these hangouts, the Homeless Resource Center prolonged its usual hours, and other venues figured out ways to allow for more people to be present during the days.
Many homeless advocates foresaw that the biggest impact would fall in the “transition housing” category, mainly the economy-class motels where low-income families exist crammed together in one room. It would be particularly harmful to school-age children, because almost none of the families have the transportation necessary to get their kids to school from anyplace but where they’ve been living.
But Charlotte planned ahead. A $20,000 fund was raised by businesses, churches, and the government, to help with rent. Thirty-six churches figured out how to provide for nearly a 100 extra beds on the average convention night. As David Jamieson reported for The Huffington Post, motels multiplied their rates as much as tenfold, for the convention period. He and others spoke with some displaced people, most of whom admitted that they were behind on their rent anyway, and seemed not to blame the business owners.
Because the economy is so slack and the opportunities so few, people end up in these “transitional” situations for years, long enough to take a philosophical attitude about being moved out for a week or more. (Or is that just a journalistic Potemkin Village?)
Jamieson has some good news:
Not every motel, however, chose to pounce on the short-term windfall. Monica Wojtkowski, general manager at an Extended Stay America near the airport, said the hotel didn’t raise rates or ask current guests to leave. ‘This is just the philosophy we had. We want to maintain good public relations,’ she said.
When the president’s outdoor speech in a stadium had to be moved indoors, Mark Price followed the story. For whatever reason, the food could not follow to the new venue, so Second Harvest mobilized, called all the soup kitchens and shelters to see how much their refrigerators could hold, and delivered 7,500 pounds of fancy catered vittles to the people experiencing homelessness.
The Charlotte Observer opined:
After the Democrats pack up and hit the campaign trail, 3,000 or more homeless adults and children will still be here. Both of the city’s primary shelters are often over capacity, and nonprofits such as Crisis Assistance Ministry are working overtime to keep people in their homes. It’s tragic that Charlotte — a can-do city, as landing the DNC attests — can’t-do on homelessness. More than four years after Charlotte and Mecklenburg governments endorsed a 10-year plan to end homelessness, the community has made little progress in implementing a comprehensive strategy to truly fix the problem.
Unfortunately, the current situation seems to follow the Waterbed Paradigm. Remember waterbeds? You can sit on one, and the water will be suppressed. It will also create a bulge in some other part of the mattress. The dent you make by sitting on the waterbed is an illusion. There may be less of it in one spot, but there is still the same amount of water in the bag.
In a recent speech, President Obama said:
The young woman I met at a science fair who won national recognition for her biology research while living with her family at a homeless shelter — she gives me hope.
Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around?
Source: “Charlotte won’t hide the homeless during the DNC,” CharlotteObserver.com, 08/21/12
Source: “Charlotte Homeless Outside DNC Cling To Motels,” The Huffington Post, 09/05/12
Source: “Let’s help homeless beyond DNC week,” CharlotteObserver.com, 08/27/12
Source: “Local charities benefit from 8,000 pounds of food leftover from DNC’s canceled stadium event,” CharlotteObserver.com, 09/07/12
Source: “Remarks by the President at the Democratic National Convention,” WhiteHouse.gov, 09/06/12
Image by Stevebott (Steve Bott).
Posted on September 4, 2012 by Pat Hartman
Tampa, FL, and Charlotte, NC, each received $50 million in federal funds for security at their national political conventions. Charlotte purchased more than $300,000 worth of bicycles for its cops, and lavished over $700,000 on a “command center upgrade.” Tampa bought itself a new armored SWAT vehicle with a price tag crowding very close on $300,000, and spent more than a million buckaroonies on spy gear, including video linkage between helicopters and the police down below.
If you’re anything like the people at House the Homeless, every time you hear numbers like that, your mind automatically translates the figures into how many meals, how many socks, how many months of rent for a struggling family whose kids need a table to do their homework on and a roof under which to do it.
And how have the homeless been faring, in the two cities thronged by visitors including America’s best and brightest?
On August 24, Elisabeth Parker reported on the mindset of local authorities in Tampa, which was preparing for the Republican National Convention. Bob Buckhorn, the mayor, said that the city had set no policy with the intention of removing people experiencing homelessness. A police spokesperson said there were no plans to displace the estimated 700 chronically homeless people from the downtown area — except for the streets that would be closed to all pedestrians.
The entrenched downtown dwellers represent only a small fraction, because the greater Tampa area contains around 16,000 homeless people, and about a fifth of them are children, which divides out to about 3,200 homeless children. How does a major political party have the nerve to hold its big self-congratulatory bash in a city with 3,200 homeless kids?
A team from Hillsborough County’s Homeless Coalition passed out flyers with maps detailing the closed areas, while police officers were advised by their department’s homeless liaison to recommend that people go to the shelters. But according to people on the streets, the Salvation Army shelter was already full, two public libraries where many were accustomed to sit out the days had been closed, and police told people to remove their belongings from hiding places in the shrubbery.
Tampa also expected to cope with 15,000 protesters in town for the convention — strangely, almost the same as the number of Greater Tampa’s homeless residents. Various news sources reported that 10-day vouchers would be available for the Good Samaritan Inn, yet when the owner of the inn was contacted, he told a confused tale of someone showing up with a voucher that was then rescinded by a county official, and no more had been seen since.
Technically, the homeless are allowed to be nowhere — their only acceptable posture is upright and in motion. A deputy gave a quotation about how it’s always somebody else’s property, whether it’s public property or not. There’s a very basic question here. Doesn’t public property belong to the people? Isn’t that what “public” means?
A woman who works with the homeless heard numerous stories of people being “run out” of downtown. When the reporter contacted the police department to confirm or deny, it had nothing to say. By August 28, Jason Cherkis was telling The Huffington Post:
The convention has cost the homeless not just regular sleeping spots and peace of mind. In some cases, it has cost them their belongings. The homeless used to squat near Trinity Cafe along the street. The police recently put a stop to it [...] just prior to the convention, city garbage collectors showed up with a police escort. They moved down the street throwing away any belongings left unattended. In one instance [...] a woman claimed her possessions but the city workers tossed them anyway.
Homeless people reported being chased to at least a mile away from the convention site. Parks were off-limits, and apparently, police warnings were spread the old-fashioned viral way, by regular speech. The word was going around: stay away, only sleep north of the overpass, don’t be caught walking around with a backpack. Everybody seemed to know somebody who had been charged with trespassing. According to the rumor, the police imported from other towns might be relatively soft, but the Tampa police would be ruthless.
But the next day, BBC reporter Daniel Nasaw related a mirror-image version of that story. A Tampa police spokesperson told him that the extra out-of-town police were the ones the homeless needed to be wary of, unfamiliar as they were with the city’s relatively lenient treatment of the homeless. (Seems like the strangers must have been given some kind of briefing before being turned loose on the streets of Tampa. Couldn’t that information have been included?) Nasaw wrote:
Secret Service and police have blocked off a swathe of downtown Tampa, set up check points, erected security fences, and otherwise disrupted the ordinary flow of pedestrian and automobile traffic. Security [...] has created hassles for everyone who lives and works in the city. And for the city’s large homeless population, the convention presents a major disruption in an already tenuous existence.
Pastor Tom Atchison, the founder of homeless services organization New Beginnings, pointed out how millions had been spent by the city for law enforcement and security, while no provisions were made for the people experiencing homelessness, whose lives are already tough enough. Typical was homeless veteran Ernest Grandison, who told Nasaw that people were prevented from reaching soup kitchens and other necessary destinations, and that the security cordon downtown added an hour and a half to the walk to his usual Sunday breakfast church. He told the reporter:
Now, if you stop to rest on a bench, they pull up and say, ‘You need to leave’.
Source: “Downtown homeless get directions for how to cope with RNC,” Tamps Bay Times, 08/24/12
Source: “Tampa Homeless Say They’re Barred From RNC Convention Site,” The Huffington Post, 08/28/12
Source: “Tampa homeless ‘sidelined’ by Republican convention pomp,” BBC News, 08/29/12
Image by Azalia_N. (Azalia Negron).
Posted on August 28, 2012 by Pat Hartman
The coroner can usually identify the bodies, but most of the time their families don’t collect the remains. So once a year, in autumn, the county… buries them in a single grave at Evergreen…. The cemetery keeps people’s remains for four years, he said, in case anyone wants to claim them, although few do.
Daniel Costello wrote this six years ago, about Los Angeles, where there is a 30-day window during which a body can be claimed before cremation. Then, the ashes are separately kept for a while, just in case. Costello viewed the storage room in which 1,600 small maroon boxes were shelved. In each box, identified with a name tag if applicable, someone’s ashes were stored. Once the four-year wait was over, each pile of ashes would be decanted into a mass grave, the name tag discarded, and the box thriftily reused.
Last year, Los Angeles laid 1,639 people to rest in just this way. Supervisor Don Knabe told a reporter:
These are individuals that, for one reason or another, have no one but the county to provide them with a respectful and dignified burial. Some are homeless. Many are poor. Some have no families to grieve for them. Regardless of what their status in life was, each one of their lives mattered.
Some feel that, having ignored homeless people in life, the authorities should at least provide some kind of marker at each mass grave listing the names, rather than just the year. More could and maybe should be done to denote the resting place of so many unclaimed humans.
To pick a random American city, last month Mike Owen reported for the Ledger-Enquirer of Columbus, GA, on proposals that would cost the city an estimated additional $10,000 per year over what it already pays for indigent burials. The director of public services, Pat Biegler, put forward two ideas, one of them aimed at squeezing more use from the city’s Porterdale Cemetery.
Only about a thousand more burial plots are available, and with an average of 81 poor and forgotten people laid to rest there every year, at this rate, the cemetery will be full in 12 years. What Biegler suggests is to start employing the practice of cremation, which is the norm in many other places. Because of the religious implications, permission for cremation has to be given by a family member, and looking for them can be a long and complicated process. But part of the problem is, of course, that many people who become “indigent remains” do not have any locatable relatives.
However, even if only a portion of the total could be cremated, the plan would be to bury three sets of ashes in each plot, thus maximizing the use of space. (As we have seen, Los Angeles manages to fit more than a thousand into each plot.) But… Before the remains are buried, the processing of the body must be considered. For a straight burial, the casket costs $225 and the funeral home gets an additional $125 to cover its overhead. Cremation, at $600, costs nearly twice as much, though that may change if the city goes along with Biegler’s request to raise a standard burial payment from $350 to $400.
This story’s reader comments included an expression of incredulity that cremation costs more than burial, and an objection to burying three sets of cremains in a single burial plot, and the suggestion (maybe facetious and maybe not) that it would be more cost-effective to bury bodies vertically. The subject also unleashed ugly contentiousness. No matter what plan the authorities settle on, a goodly number of people will be riled up about it.
King County, WA, encompasses Seattle and about two million residents, and is nowhere near being one of America’s wealthiest counties. As of the 2010 census, median income for a family was $87,010, and about 10% of the residents qualified as below the poverty line. Carol Smith presciently wrote that an “invisible indicator” of a failing economy is the annually increasing number of unclaimed bodies housed in the morgue.
Smith interviewed Joe Frisino, chief investigator for the Medical Examiner’s office, whose job is to locate the relatives if possible and determine their wishes. Frisino often relies on Mary Larson, a nurse at the Pioneer Clinic, to help with identification. She also helps organize the annual group services, which sometimes memorialize as many as 200 unclaimed people. The nurse, an easel painter who often portrays her homeless friends in works of art, is quoted as saying:
We meet wonderful, very, very interesting people.
To qualify for indigent burial in Travis County, TX, a person has to either be unidentified, or possess under $2,000 in assets and no insurance. These days, that includes a lot of people, especially among the homeless. In Austin, Andrea Ball reported earlier this month on the inauguration of a second indigent cemetery:
For decades, Travis County has been arranging and paying for burials of low-income people. Travis County Health and Human Services and Veterans Services Department pays funeral homes about $850 per burial… The county provides the burial spot and arranges a small service. They also have staffers who work with surviving relatives.
Business and multimedia journalism student Michelle Chu notes that as an alternative to buying the 97-acre parcel of land for the new cemetery, the county considered privatizing indigent burial by contracting with funeral homes. She says:
Privatization would have increased the cost from $850 to about $4,500 per burial.
That would be an astonishingly exponential increase. Even more astonishing is to hear such an admission in a state where privatization is generally considered to be a good thing.
Ball tells us that in Travis County, cremation has not been the policy up until now, not even when requested by the decedent’s family, although that may change. Apparently, in other parts of Texas, a cremation can be had for as little as $200. In 2011, Travis County was responsible for 145 interments, at a total cost of $130,000. If the cremation alternative is adopted, it would have to be authorized by the next of kin, and not even considered in the case of an unidentified person.
In her piece, Ball quoted Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless, who sees the proposal as meeting changing needs while retaining sensitivity and respect for the deceased and their families.
Source: “Homeless in Life, Nameless in Death,” LA Times, 06/25/06
Source: “L.A. County to bury homeless, poor unclaimed by family members,” LA Times, 12/06/11
Source: “City considering cremation of indigent remains to save cemetery space,” Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, 07/31/12
Source: “Indigent Remains,” KUOW.org, 12/23/09
Source: “New cemetery for Travis’ indigent, and perhaps a new option: cremation,” Statesman.com, 08/08/12
Source: “A New (Final) Home for Indigent Residents,” Travis County in Transition, 2012
Image by Loco Steve (Steve Wilson).
Posted on August 21, 2012 by Pat Hartman
By now, everyone has heard of TED, the nonprofit foundation whose mission is to spread ideas. Originally, its speakers and audience were drawn from the realms of Technology, Entertainment, and Design. Now, TED draws from inspiration from every well:
Today, TED is best thought of as a global community. It’s a community welcoming people from every discipline and culture who seek a deeper understanding of the world.
TED’s yearly global conference in Edinburgh is one of the most significant events a person could hope to attend. The speakers whose “TED Talks” are offered for free online include “the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers,” who get to talk for no more than 18 minutes.
Richard Wilkinson’s speech only ran 16 minutes and 34 seconds, and he made a lot of good points in that time about how economic inequality harms societies. Does it make any sense at all that some of the wealthiest countries also have the greatest economic gaps between rich and poor?
Extensive research done by Wilkinson, who is emeritus professor of public health at the University of Nottingham, revealed an interesting corollary to his contention that more equal societies almost always fare better in a number of important ways. Some countries get along fine with redistribution of wealth, and some succeed because there is a smaller difference in the range of before-tax income. The thing is, he says:
[W]e conclude that it doesn’t much matter how you get your greater equality, as long as you get there somehow. We’ve got to constrain income, the bonus culture incomes at the top… [T]he take-home message though is that we can improve the real quality of human life by reducing the differences in incomes between us.
The studies were set up with carefully crafted parameters. The economic disparity between the rich and the poor was measured by taking the top 20% and the bottom 20%, and comparing them to find out exactly how much difference there is. Here’s what they came up with:
The more unequal countries are doing worse on all these kinds of social problems. It’s an extraordinarily close correlation.
We’re talking about all kinds of problems, certain of which are more pervasive at the lower end of the socio-economic ladder, all of them worse in the more unequal countries — not just a little bit worse, but anything from twice as common to 10 times as common. Wilkinson says:
What we’re looking at is general social disfunction related to inequality. It’s not just one or two things that go wrong, it’s most things.
Especially in the area of health and longevity, there is “a lot of difference between the poor and the rest of us,” according to Wilkinson. The research looks at life expectancy, infant mortality, homicide, teen birth rates, and many other indicators. Mental illness is one, including addiction to alcohol or hard drugs. Whole societies, Wilkinson says, have three times the mental illness rates as other societies, and it’s all tied up with economic inequality. Inequality has psychosocial effects:
More to do with feelings of superiority and inferiority, of being valued and devalued, respected and disrespected… The big change in our understanding of drivers of chronic health in the rich developed world is how important chronic stress from social sources is affecting the immune system, the cardiovascular system.
Psychosocial stress has the same detrimental effects on the human body and mind as any other kind of stress. Mental illness leads to homelessness, and homelessness leads to mental illness. Another vicious cycle is created by what Joel Dyer calls the “perpetual prisoner machine.” Where do homeless people come from? Sometimes, from prison. But that doesn’t mean they should be exiled forever. They’re not disposable people. And if a person never did time before, being homeless increases the likelihood of it, exponentially.
Wilkinson illustrates again and again how inequality affects not just the poor but the entire society. Although a closer approach to equality makes the most difference at the bottom, he points out, there are benefits at the top as well. Trust level is an interesting one. In the most unequal societies, only about 15% of the population feel that other people can be trusted. In the most equal societies, the number is more like 60%. In more equal societies, there is more community involvement, and that means making sure everybody is involved, who wants to be. Including people experiencing homelessness, who, if community is real, can and will be helped to escape that condition.
“How economic inequality harms societies” can also be reached via Universal Living Wage (click on “What’s New” on the menu on the left).
Source: “About TED,” TED.com
Source: “Richard Wilkinson: How economic inequality harms societies,” dotSUB.com
Image by Jerry.
Posted on July 9, 2012 by Pat Hartman
The subject of Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) by novelist George Orwell is about poverty in the late 1920s. For the poor, the fabled Roaring Twenties were dismal. Orwell came from an impoverished upper-class English family. The homelessness he experienced and described in his books may not have been strictly unavoidable. Even though a young man was expected to make his own way in the world, this young man’s parents would always have rescued him to the farthest extent of their ability.
But Orwell always wanted to know how the poor lived. He was never one to turn a blind eye to injustice, or to take the mass media’s word for anything. It was partly in the spirit of investigative journalism that he experienced homelessness and a tenuous hold on survival at the very fringes of society. James Wood says:
Even when he was working as a journalist in London, [Orwell] lived simply, without much luxury. There is a religious dimension to this, almost — a need to take a kind of vow of poverty, to dismantle his own privilege and luxury, to be other than his social background.
Like a war correspondent, he signed up for discomfort and danger. (Later on, he did actually participate in and write about a war, the one that idealists of his era volunteered for.) In Paris, he competed in the desperate scramble for work, showing up at a designated corner, hoping to be chosen for a miserable day’s employment. He took part in the exhausting life of the lowest-status drudges in great hotels and restaurants, working in 100-degree heat through 18-hour days, for less than enough to get by on.
In London, he became familiar with the free shelters, called “spikes,” where a man could only stay once per month. This rule kept all the tramps in constant rotation, walking from shelter to shelter, quickly burning any calories they might have gained from the dreadful food. In their waking hours, the homeless were compelled to stay upright and in motion, and in the hours of rest they were confined in prison-like conditions, to cope with the stark boredom of enforced immobility and idleness.
Orwell stayed in the lowest grade of private lodging houses, government shelters, and charity facilities run by religious groups. He learned about the hassle and humiliation of pawning one’s few shabby belongings. He learned about the choice between washing in bathwater already used by a dozen people, or not washing at all. He learned about the smells, the filth, the frustration, the shunning, the major disasters and minor inconveniences, and the need to always watch your back because not all the other tramps are as honest and decent as you are. On the other hand, he wrote:
I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny…
Author Michael Ventura writes:
True adventurers learn, eventually, that anything can be an adventure if you live with an adventurer’s heart and your life is not a lie. But I was a greedy boy. I wanted my adventure to look like an adventure.
Ventura hit the streets very young, and somehow landed in another state, with a dysfunctional family who accepted him. He learned at a very tender age that money can’t insulate anyone from unhappiness, and also that “normal” is nowhere to be found. Whether or not a child really, truly, technically has a choice about running away from home is not for us to judge. For this child, the place he found was better than the one he had left behind, and certainly better than homelessness. He writes:
Strangers took me in. I wasn’t grateful. I felt no loyalty. They were not my kind. But I’d been on the street, alone, and I didn’t want to go back to that… I had been uprooted at age 13. By age 15, I sensed vaguely that I would never be, or feel, rooted again… If the world is a shooting gallery – and it is – I wanted to be a moving target.
If Thomas Kinkade was the “painter of light,” T. Coraghessan Boyle is the writer of heartbreak. His novel The Tortilla Curtain, published in 1995, glows with the kind of compassion found in Bruce Springsteen‘s lyrics. It’s about people who camp in a ravine, in need so abject that a toothbrush is an unthinkable luxury. It’s about undocumented immigration, or at least that’s the aspect most readers and critics latched onto. Scott Spencer says of the main characters:
Candido and America are part of California’s unacknowledged work force, cogs in the vast human machine that does the state’s brute labor and without whom… the state could probably not survive. Mr. Boyle is first-rate in capturing the terror of looking for work in an alien society… “You didn’t ask questions. You got in the back of the truck and you went where they took you.”
Mainly, the book is about grinding, abysmal poverty, about the desperate willingness to work when there is no work to do. About being grievously injured when it’s impossible to take the risk of asking for medical care. Being victimized and exploited by people from your own land who are just as poor as you. The particular pain of being around food when none of it is for you. The pain of watching your wife go off in a car with an ugly stranger who hires her to use a toxic chemical that will affect your unborn child, and then cheats her on the pay. Of being hated for no better reason than that you have the nerve to exist and draw breath on the planet. Of being a husband or father or wife or mother who can’t provide. As Michael Ventura says,
If you’re the parent, the caring parent, the shame and guilt damn near kill you – you feel it’s your fault even when you’re caught in an economic storm not remotely of your making.
There are many facets to the larger condition of experiencing homelessness. For a runaway teen, some authority figure might question whether she or he really, really had a choice — but who is wise enough to second-guess a decision of that magnitude for someone else? For young journalist George Orwell, sure, he could have stayed home mooching off his parents. On the other hand, given his burning sense of injustice and his drive to learn about how the poor lived and his mission to convey the truth to a prosperous, complacent upper class, he didn’t have a choice.
Once the choice has been made to come north, the couple from Mexico in Boyle’s novel really don’t have any choice but to camp outdoors. Try as they might, and they do try heroically, things just don’t work out for them, and their connection with the rest of the undocumented alien community is so tenuous, they’re unable to network and attempt to get indoors somehow that way. There may be as many kinds of homelessness as there are individuals, and judging their worthiness and whether they are “deserving” of help is a job a little bit bigger than most of us fallible humans are capable of taking on. The one thing we know for sure is that they need help.
Source: “We’ll Always Have Paris,” NewYorker.com, 04/30/09
Source: “Letters at 3AM: ‘I Have Heard the Mermaids Singing’,” AustinChronicle.com, 06/29/12
Source: “The Tortilla Curtain by T. Coraghessan Boyle,” NYTimes.com, 09/03/95
Source: “Somehow It Gets to Be Tomorrow,” AustinChronicle.com, 02/26/10
Image by TheeErin, used under its Creative Commons license.
Posted on June 25, 2012 by Pat Hartman
On June 15, the corpse of Valerie Louise Godoy was found in a wooded area of Austin, Texas. At the age of 34, she was killed by “significant blunt force trauma,” not to the head, which might at least be quick, but to the body, which sounds like a miserable way to go.
Richard R. Troxell and House the Homeless find that last year (2011) the number of homeless deaths in Austin was 137. Only a small proportion of these deaths were from violence, but there is a school of thought which holds that homelessness itself is an act of violence. Words to that effect are permanently engraved at the site of Austin’s Homeless Memorial, where every autumn, caring people gather to pay tribute to the lost lives.
Each one of these people had a story, as Richard reminded us when interviewed by TV journalist Alana Rocha for YNN Fox (News 8). The video coverage included several of his remarks, including:
The thing about Valerie is, she was somebody’s sister, somebody’s daughter.
And so were they all — sisters and daughters, brothers and sons. Various news reports make a point of mentioning Valerie Godoy’s ordinary, relatively normal upbringing. She took part in high school theatricals; moved to New York for a while to study the culinary arts. She could be the girl next door. And this is exactly the point. People experiencing homelessness are not members of some alien species, separate from humanity. Most of them had ordinary, relatively normal lives. Unfortunately, these days, being a normal, ordinary American means being about one paycheck away from disaster.
Valerie Godoy was perhaps unusual in being homeless in the town where she grew up. It may seem strange that someone with local family should be living on the streets, but there are many reasons for adults to not live with their parents. Sometimes, relatives are unwilling to deal with the consequences of living with an addict who refuses treatment. There are compelling reasons why even family members with the biggest hearts in the world, might be unable to offer someone housing.
In fact, the government itself makes it difficult for people to help their homeless relatives and friends. If they receive Section 8 housing assistance, only the people originally authorized are allowed to live in a place. Did Granny’s apartment building burn down and she needs somewhere to stay? Too bad. A family might be willing to take in a stray person — but weighed against the risk of losing their own housing and finding themselves out on the street, they just don’t dare.
Valerie Godoy’s body was found in Duncan Park, aka the Ninth Street BMX trail, which accommodates offroad bicycle racing over difficult and challenging terrain. A website for BMX enthusiasts mentioned the crime, and a very large number of respondents left comments ranging from cavalier and flippant to seriously, disturbingly ugly. Their main concern seems to be that the park will be perceived as a menace to public safety and bulldozed so it can no longer be used for their particular brand of recreation.
Although the park is said to not be maintained by the city, Godoy’s body was found by a parks officer. KXAN reporter David Scott mentioned that the park is frequented by the homeless, “in part because a food truck stops there with hot meals.” Scott also called the murder a “bizarre” case, though he did not explain what was particularly bizarre about it. A police department spokesperson, Cpl. Anthony Hipolito, told YNN News:
It’s a pretty populated area. They run people out of here all the time…
The impression is given that, while the food truck may stop at the park, the authorities are not particularly hospitable to the people experiencing homelessness who go there to eat. Another member of the police force told a reporter it seemed like Godoy was not familiar with the area. The police may have gotten their information from the same person who commented at a website called LiarCatchers, stating that one or two days before the murder, he had overheard the victim asking someone how to get to Duncan Park.
According to one news report, Valerie Godoy was sighted shortly before her death sitting on a curb with another person who had not been seen around the park before. Was the killer a stranger to her? There is a reason for asking this question. According to a website that publishes “mug shots,” the victim was arrested for public intoxication on May 25. In the official photograph her face is cut and bruised [see video]. The picture used by other news outlets, after her death, is a digitally cleaned-up version of that photo, with the contusions and laceration removed. Who put them there? Who roughed up Valerie Godoy three weeks before she was brutally murdered?
According to a helpful website, Texas is second only to California in the number of women’s shelters encompassed by its borders. Texas has 195, nine of them in Austin. At first blush, that sounds great. When you break it down, the situation is more complicated and less rosy. It’s not clear which institutions are actually places with beds, and which are referral agencies. Two of the listings specifically mention domestic violence, and although women experiencing homelessness are often subject to violence from partners, the specialized nature of some establishments can make it hard to gain admission. One listing is not a shelter but a hotline. And so it goes.
Single women and single women with children continue to be the fastest growing segment of homelessness, not only in Austin but also in the nation. Women currently get turned away every day.
Obviously, the supply of help is not matching up with the need. Consequently Richard, House the Homeless, and all concerned friends are calling for the creation of the Valerie Godoy Women’s Shelter. The first step is to bring this matter to the attention of Austin’s city leaders by way of a petition, which can be found on this page. Please click over and sign!
Source: “Woman’s murder exposes Austin’s most vulnerable,” YNN.com, 06/20/12
Source: “Police call for help in murder case,” KXAN.com, 06/16/12
Source: “Police investigate suspicious death in Downtown Austin,” YNN.com, 06/15/12
Source: “Austin, Texas,” WomensShelters.org
Image by maczter, used under its Creative Commons license.
Posted on June 19, 2012 by Pat Hartman
Here’s the history and definition of “Jim Crow,” as presented by a website called Tennessee 4 me:
After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Civil Rights Act of 1875, laws were passed that separated blacks from whites. These were known as ‘Jim Crow’ laws. Supposedly the laws were named after a dance tune, ‘Jump Jim Crow’ that ridiculed African Americans. Signs went up in front of water fountains, restrooms, and other public places saying ‘Whites Only.’
Most of an entire generation, maybe a couple of generations, of Americans would not know the meaning of “Jim Crow” if the question were asked on a TV quiz show. The concept was said to be dead and buried. But today, risen like a zombie from a shallow grave, the spirit of Jim Crow stalks the land, virulent as ever. In fact, that spirit has developed a whole new side to its malevolent personality.
Conversely, there is the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which is resurrected by Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow. Such is the belief of Cornel West, who wrote the book’s foreword. West also perceives a “democratic awakening focused on the poor and vulnerable in American society.”
Alexander’s work demonstrates that the country’s racial caste system has not been abolished, but only redesigned. Alexander concentrates on one major aspect of that indictment, the cycling of racial minorities from joblessness to prison to homelessness and loss of civil rights. West says:
Her subtle analysis shifts our attention from the racial symbol of America’s achievement to the actual substance of America’s shame: the massive use of state power to incarcerate hundreds of thousands of precious poor, black, male (and, increasingly, female) young people in the name of a bogus ‘War on Drugs.’
In fact, the very discourse of colorblindness — created by neoconservatives and neoliberals in order to trivialize and disguise the depths of black suffering in the 1980s and ’90s — has left America blind to the New Jim Crow.
The massive disproportion apparent in the prison population is by no means the sum of the problem. Additionally, America has not quite realized that Jim Crow is now colorblind, too.
“Homeless is the new black.” It’s a multilayered pun, first from the fashion industry, where the “little black dress” is acknowledged as an outfit suitable anywhere, and black is the color you can’t go wrong with. But, either seriously or in jest, someone is always coming up with a line like, “Fuchsia is the new black,” meaning that it will replace that color as the fashion industry standard.
Then, there’s black in the racial sense. The way it used to be, in many parts of America, people who were then described as Negro or colored were considered non-persons, and had an almost exclusive monopoly on destitution. Nowadays, anybody can join the hordes of the shunned. Having no place to live is an equal-opportunity experience. Is this what the heroes who struggled for racial equality had in mind? Did the civil rights martyrs suffer and die so that homeless could become the new black?
Now, rather separate restrooms, or even whites-only restrooms, cities tend to have no restrooms for anybody. It’s impossible to keep homeless people out of public toilets, so the answer comes in a blinding flash of darkness — no toilets at all! This line of twisted reasoning could be called “throwing out the baby with the bathwater” or “cutting off your nose to spite your face.”
According to Drew Harwell, the way they do it in Clearwater, Florida, is to weld the doors of the public restrooms shut. And remove any stray hose or water spigot. After all, if people experiencing homelessness can be prevented from drinking, they won’t need to use a bathroom anyway, right? Oh, and make sure all the electricity is locked up tight. Harwell says:
Last month city employees took pictures of three men they saw charging cellphones at Station Square Park. Officials are also keeping a spreadsheet tracking homeless sightings and residents’ complaints… Slashing urban amenities is the city’s latest step in making it tougher to live on the street. The city’s homelessness consultant, Robert Marbut, said street survival guides and ‘renegade’ food giveaways only served to discourage the homeless from seeking real help.
This spate of bureaucratese is translated by Ann Sattley of Technically, That’s Illegal:
We cannot tolerate people living on the streets. It bothers some of our taxpayers, and they are the ones responsible for paying our salaries. We want to make them go somewhere else, so we’ll cut anything that helps them in any way. When people get upset, we’ll give them one stupid example of an alternative to keep them quiet. We’ll encourage them to go into job training, and ignore the fact that they need food and water before they can even consider getting a job.
Imagine: homeless people charging their cell phones, to communicate with the world, and maybe find work or a place to live. What a heinous crime! How dare they! The party line is that extreme “tough love” measures will “curb homelessness.” Really? Maybe the only thing curbed is the ability of homeless people to find a toilet. Or anyone else either, such as housed kids who play in parks, and the parents who accompany them. And retired folks, whose own personal plumbing doesn’t work too well. But who cares about them, as long as the street people are denied access.
Could life be any more grim? Yes. Harwell mentions a publicity campaign that was meant to talk “enablers” out of making donations to the Catholic soup kitchen — but the public pushed back against such a cruel idea. Incidentally, the homelessness consultant’s characterization of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (founded in 1833 and serving in 132 countries) as a “renegade” organization, is disturbing to say the least.
Source: “Jim Crow Laws,” tn4me.org
Source: “The New Jim Crow – Foreword by Cornel West,” NewJimCrow.com
Source: “Clearwater officials crack down on public amenities used by homeless,” Tampa Bay Times, 06/14/12
Source: “Tough Love for the Homeless,” Technically, That’s Illegal, 06/14/12
Image by mikebaird (Mike Baird), used under its Creative Commons license.