Posted on December 3, 2013 by Pat Hartman
Thousands of heroic Americans have worked tirelessly to establish shelters, find the money to keep them going, staff them at the correct level, observe all applicable laws, and perform an unbelievable number of diverse tasks. As a result, some of the people experiencing homelessness are allowed to spend days or nights under a roof, some of the time, in some places. For both its providers and its guests, shelter space is hard-won.
So then, why would street people avoid shelters? Because not everyone shares the same hierarchy of needs, and a homeless person might have priorities that conflict with the seemingly obvious. It’s very hard to tell helpers that what they offer does not solve everything and might even make an individual’s situation worse. Change.org published the views of a person writing under the name SlumJack Homeless, who reminds us that we don’t live in a one-size-fits-all world. As he expresses it, “The ONLY thing that ‘the homeless’ have in common is that we don’t have homes.”
Check-in time might be as early as 5 p.m., and if you leave, someone else gets the bed. Depending on the rules, or the disposition of the staff, it might mean permanent banishment. The rules were established to help people with substance-abuse problems avoid the temptations of the dark streets. But this also eliminates the possibility of, for instance, an evening AA program. In Boulder, Colo., journalist Josie Raymond once interviewed shelter director Joy Eckstine, who said:
I’ve talked to people who literally had to choose between going to their 12-Step meetings and going to the shelter…. A lot of shelters don’t let you use your own alarm clock or provide an early enough wake-up call.
This is an area where one standard definitely is not optimal for everyone. Shelter guests, including the young, the old and the disabled, are ejected back into the streets as early as 5 AM, when nothing is open and there is nothing to do and nowhere to go. But men who walk to some distant day-laborers’ pick-up point might need to get up even earlier.
The “economic homeless” are people who work, maybe even full-time, and still can’t afford housing — but the shelter system can’t accommodate them. If you finish work at 11 PM, the shelter is full and locked down. If you get off work at 7 AM, the place with the beds is closed all day. It’s ironic that the working poor get the worst deal in this respect. Rules that curb the bad habits of the most troublesome guests can be unbearably authoritarian for the productive stranger to this scene, who just wants a normal life back. For SlumJack Homeless, evening is a time to hang in coffeeshops, read the bulletin boards, talk with people who might know of work, and hook up with the free wifi to do research and look for opportunities. He says:
Those of us that show up in the best shape and even with distinct potentials to succeed in getting back OUT of the jam are driven further into it by the shelters existing and their demands and impositions and limitations… while these operations are demonstrably designed to keep the worst cases from their own demise …they also thereby become real liabilities for the more functional among us…
SlumJack compares signing in to a shelter with volunteering for jail, because you’re going to spend a lot of time in close proximity to people you want nothing to do with. When time is a person’s only asset, much better use can be made of it than spending an evening trapped in a shelter, even if it means sleeping outside.
The Good, the Bad and the Worse
The average shelter doesn’t let a person bring in many possessions and lacks secure outdoor space, so if you have a bike or a cart it might disappear overnight. These rules are understandable too. The less stuff that comes through the door, the less opportunity for smuggling in contraband or unintentionally spreading a bedbug infestation. If you didn’t come in with bedbugs, you might leave with some hiding in your clothes. And any belongings you’re allowed to bring in might attract the attention of a thief who makes a mental note to find you alone outside tomorrow.
Everyone is coughing and sneezing, and you will probably catch something. If you prefer to cover your baldness with a hat, you might be yelled at in front of a church group that an employee is leading through on a tour. You might be in line next to a guy carrying a rusty but live hand grenade, as once happened in Santa Cruz, Calif.
ABC40 reporter Dianna Maguire recently visited a women’s shelter in Massachusetts and reported on how they eat dinner, have their bags and personal items searched, do housekeeping chores, take mandatory showers, and finally are issued bedding to make up their bunks. One of the guests told her, “You’ve got to pretty much hold onto your stuff, lock up your stuff, or sleep with it.” At a shelter, you might resent being bossed around by another homeless person who was deputized to maintain order. Kevin Barbieux, a writer on homeless issues, says:
What usually happens is that the “security guard” takes advantage of his position and engages in inappropriate behavior himself…. And the administrators, wishing to be supportive of their “program people” will summarily side with their program people…
In March, the City Rescue Mission in New Castle, Penn., got in trouble for turning away a blind man and his guide dog. Because of the Fair Housing Act, service animals are supposed to be allowed. But not pets. The no-pets rule discourages many street people from ever seeking shelter. Is that fair? On the other hand, is it fair that people who are allergic or phobic should have to spend the night cooped up with other people’s animals?
The Change.org page we mentioned (no longer available with the comments) included in the comments section a long, heartbreakingly detailed description by “K K” who told of the intense horror of living in various shelters with her three children. And yes, very bad things happen to kids in even the most well-intentioned places. But sexual predation is not limited to residents. One man commented about staying at a church shelter where women were “violated by the pastor.” This is depressing enough, but to really see a lid blown off, read Renee Miller’s “I Went Undercover at a Homeless Shelter — You Wouldn’t Believe the Shocking Abuses I Found There.”
A while back, there was a National Transgender Discrimination Survey that covered 6,560 people. The homeless survey participants spoke of being denied access to a shelter, or of being forced to live as the wrong gender — for instance, if legally male, they have to stay in a male shelter no matter what. A quarter of the respondents had been physically attacked and/or sexually assaulted by fellow residents or staff members.
It’s painful to know these things, and to see how the earnest efforts of caring citizens can go awry. But it does help to understand and be compassionate when needy people refuse help. Dennis Culhane, who studied the Philadelphia shelter system, wrote, “Anyone who ever has to stay in a shelter involuntarily knows that all you think about is how to make sure you never come back.”
Source: “Why I Choose Streets Over Shelter,” Change.org, 06/03/09
Source: “Why Many Homeless People Choose Streets Over Shelters,” Tonic.com, 12/02/10
Source: “WWII grenade found at homeless shelter, transient arrested,” MercuryNews.com, 08/01/11
Source: “Homeless: Life in the Shelter,” WGGB.com, 11/27/13
Source: “The Homeless Guy: A Big Problem At Homeless Shelters,” Blogspot.com, 09/24/11
Source: “For Transgender Homeless, Choice Of Shelter Can Prevent Violence …,” CityLimits.org, 12/06/2010
Source: “Theories, Predictions and Diagnoses,” Google Books
Image by Jeremy Miles
Posted on November 19, 2013 by Pat Hartman
It’s perfectly possible to be anti-war, or against a particular war, and still be pro-veteran. The government made a contract with these Americans. Yet a lot of returning veterans have not received and are not receiving what they are entitled to, because the government does not live up to its contractual obligation. It’s that simple.
In many cases, the federal government is not doing its job. In others, a state government falls short of fulfilling its purpose. On October 26, Jeremy Schwartz of the Austin American-Statesman blew the lid off a situation that affects more than 43,000 veterans in Bell County, Texas, which incidentally is the location of Fort Hood. A state law enacted in 1985 says that in any county where the population is over 200,000, there should be a full-time veterans service officer. Schwartz explains how the system is supposed to work:
While federal VA workers process claims, state, county and local veterans service officers play a crucial role in preparing what are increasingly complex disability claims for conditions such as traumatic brain injury. Officials say well-trained service officers can speed the process by submitting what they call “fully developed” claims, which include all the necessary medical and military records, making them easier to process.
Yet in Bell County, there is no full-time veterans service officer.
Of the 23 counties over 200,000, only Bell and Lubbock counties do not employ such officers, though Lubbock funds clerical staff to support a state officer, according to the Texas Veterans Commission.
The requirement is voluntary for smaller counties, but many have also hired at least part-time county veterans service officers, especially in recent years as service members have flooded home from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Since 1996, Schwartz writes, the task of liaising with veterans in Bell County has fallen on a volunteer, Jim Endicott. Although he is a former Veterans Administration general counsel, he only works part-time. Other volunteers and state employees help with the workload, but they can’t keep up, and volunteers are not required to take the annual training that the state requires for veterans services officers hired by counties. This is important, the writer points out, because the VA rules change constantly. If the workers are not familiar with the rules, how can they help vets successfully submit “fully developed” claims?
The troops on the ground
The veterans line up as early as 2 o’clock in the morning in hopes of being seen. (The question springs to mind, why not use an appointment system?) Frustrated by the inefficiency in their own locality, some journey to the designated offices in adjoining counties. Schwartz learned that in the past two years, more than a thousand local veterans who had signed in at the Temple office gave up and left before being seen. Bell County has issued 12,000 disabled-veteran license plates, a figure that hints at the extent of the problem.
Nevertheless, according to unnamed Bell County bureaucrats, complaints are few, even from veterans’ groups which presumably wield some influence. Jon Burrows, a Bell County judge, told the reporter that “there hasn’t been a need to hire a full-time county veterans service officer.” But he may be mistaken. The people on the job struggle under heavy caseloads. Schwartz says:
At one point last year, the VA’s Waco Regional Office, which serves veterans in Bell County and Central Texas, had the nation’s longest wait time for claims processing. Today, the average wait time to process a claim is 464 days in Waco — and 14,605 of the more than 26,000 pending cases have been sitting at least 125 days.
Finally, in mid-November, the Bell County commissioners decided at their weekly meeting to add to their website a section containing information for veterans, to open up a phone line for questions from veterans, and to find office space for the veterans service officer who will be hired before the new year.
Issues still exist: a shortage of trained personnel, and of training for existing personnel, as well as the perceived need for a “one-stop shop” to make life a bit easier for disabled veterans and for people with other socioeconomic problems, such as being denied food stamps. Judge Burrows still maintains that the commissioners never even knew there were any unmet needs.
Jim Endicott, the volunteer liaison officer mentioned above, made the astonishing statement that he only sees “five or six veterans a year,” reports Alex Wukman of FME News Service. Mostly, Endicott just provides “referral and outreach” — in other words, connecting veterans with personnel at the Texas Veterans Commission.
Note: War Hero Audie Murphy, though a Texan, was neither born nor buried in Bell County. Still, his story is very much worth knowing.
Source: “Despite state law, Bell County doesn’t employ veteran service officer“, Mystatesman.com, 10/26/13
Source: “Bell County to hire veterans service officer,” KDHNews.com, 11/13/13
Image by dbking
Posted on November 5, 2013 by Pat Hartman
Today, problems aren’t solved, they’re attacked. Like the War on Poverty. Remember that? I’m happy to report that it’s finally over. The poor people have all surrendered.
— Swami Beyondananda
Yes, there used to be a thing called the War on Poverty, declared by a president named Lyndon B. Johnson. Although opinions about it differ, still, the War on Poverty was preferable to what we have now — the War on the Poor.
It’s not even an undeclared war, it’s right out there in the open. In different communities, the authorities come at it in different ways, sometimes direct, but often tangential, which is more difficult for homeless advocates to deal with. House the Homeless blog has reported extensively on the No-Sit, No-Lie Ordinance in its home city of Austin, Texas, and on similar measures in other places.
In a recent article for TakePart.com, Solvej Schou expressed concern that peaceful begging, just asking for food or money with no aggression involved, is increasingly being criminalized by anti-panhandling and anti-solicitation laws now in effect in nearly 200 American cities.
Alley Valkyrie, an activist in Eugene, Oregon, received a criminal trespass citation for touching a planter box outside a restaurant and made national news by publicizing the incident as an example of how selective enforcement can make life miserable for people experiencing homelessness. Also, Eugene has something called an “exclusion law” whereby a judge can ban from the city center people accused, but not even yet convicted, of certain crimes. This prevents folks in need from accessing services, and basically from even existing in the designated area, even though they are not officially guilty of anything.
Things are still hot in Miami, Florida, where just last month a federal judge heard ACLU attorneys argue against modification of the Pottinger Settlement Agreement, a piece of legislation peculiar to Miami. Around 15 years ago, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the city on behalf of all its people experienceing homelessness. The organization’s website says:
The landmark settlement — won after a decade of litigation involving two trials, two appeals, and nearly two years of mediation — protects homeless individuals from being harassed or arrested by law enforcement for the purpose of driving them from public areas.
Law Professor Stephen Schnably, who has been involved with this matter all along, adds:
Transforming downtown into a constitution-free zone for homeless people is a Faustian bargain with no payoff. Eviscerating the Pottinger protections — what the City is effectively seeking — would do nothing to make downtown more vibrant. All it would do is strip homeless people of the basic human and constitutional right not to be arrested or have their property destroyed just for being homeless.
Also last month, Memphis, TN, looked bad when a program called Room in the Inn, which provides one night of shelter for several individuals, was forbidden at a Methodist church in a neighborhood called Evergreen which had planned to participate. In order to have overnight guests, you see, a church must own at least five acres of property. In Spartanburg, SC, a church made itself look bad by refusing help from local atheists who wanted to volunteer at its soup kitchen. The atheists responded by deciding instead to distribute packets of health and grooming aids from a location across the street.
In Anaheim, CA, the city council went full speed ahead with the unanimous passing of an ordinance which “imposes a ban on camping in parks and other public spaces while allowing for the confiscation of property deemed abandoned.” In practical terms this means that the belongings of people experiencing homelessness can be seized and destroyed by the police while the owner is eating, showering, or using a restroom.
That battle has already been fought and won in Los Angeles, where the Ninth Circuit court decided that stealing such property violates the victims’ 4th and 14th Amendment rights, but Anaheim is going for it anyway. Even at the best of times, less than half of the city’s people experiencing homelessness can fit into the local shelter, but that does not stop Anaheim from attempting to make public sleeping a crime.
Learn at a glance
For an instantaneous education in the current state of homelessness, please consult the infographic.”Gimme Shelter: Homeless in America,” curated by Roslyn Willson. As would reasonably be expected in this genre, the facts are presented in visually elegant terms. The presentation format is especially journalist-friendly, with everything repeated in plain text, making it easy for a reporter or blogger to quote something. Well played, Ms. Willson! The same technique is shared by another infographic, “The War Against the Homeless,” so please check out both of them and see what you’ve been missing.
Source: “The Crime of Poverty: Some Homeless People Face Arrest for Asking for Help,” TakePart.com, 10/09/13
Source: “Activists: trespass tickets aimed at homeless,” KVAL.com, 03/10/12
Source: “ACLU of Florida Defends Historic Agreement Protecting Miami’s Homeless from Police Harassment in Federal Court,” ACLUFL.org, 10/23/13
Source: “City code stops certain churches from housing the homeless,” WMCTV.com, 10/25/13
Source: “Christianity makes monsters of people, part two: atheists banned from helping the homeless,” Freethinker.co.uk, 10/27/13
Source: “ACLU: Anaheim’s Anti-Homeless Crackdown Legally “Disingenuous’,” OCWeekly.com, 10/28/13
Image by Occupy.
Posted on October 29, 2013 by Pat Hartman
We left off with how the Veterans Administration dragged its feet — in the face of scientific evidence, dire need, and special legislation — on the issue of damage done to U.S. Military personnel by Agent Orange. If thousands of disability claims had to be honored, the health care costs would be enormous. Subsequent to Senator Daschle’s exposure of fraud in the investigation, such groups as the Vietnam Veterans of America and the American Legion accused the government of a massive coverup.
In 1990, the House Government Operations Committee released a report charging that the Reagan administration had purposely controlled and obstructed the Agent Orange study three years earlier. According to the U.S. Veteran Dispatch:
The White House compromised the independence of the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] and undermined the study by controlling crucial decisions and guiding the course of research at the same time it had secretly taken a legal position to resist demands to compensate victims of Agent Orange exposure…
To veterans with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, or their surviving dependents, the VA was ordered to pay compensation. This financial liability is on the U.S. taxpayers, rather than the war profiteers who made the defoliant. And even if the government had admitted to using the wrong sort of chemical, or to not using it in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations, so what? The only money the government has comes from the taxpayers, who would still end up footing the bill.
An interesting question
Between the end of the Vietnam war in 1975, and the 2010 “automatic funding” of Agent Orange claims, 35 years elapsed. During those years, how many homeless veterans were created or affected by illnesses that Agent Orange caused? With a sickness they couldn’t get treatment for, how many tried to cope on their own with pain and stress, and developed addictions? Impossible to know, but any number would be too many.
And, speaking of addiction, before judging a homeless vet for being a junkie, we might take a minute to think about how the monkey got onto that person’s back, and who put it there. Earlier this year, a very disturbing piece of investigative journalism by Richard A. Friedman appeared in The New York Times. He says frontline troops in Iraq and Afghanistan were fed generous amounts of “sedatives, stimulants and mood stabilizers.” He points out that, although combat troop levels in those places were reduced since 2008, the years from 2005 to 2011 saw a nearly 700% increase in pharmaceutical prescriptions.
In other words, for every service member in a combat zone who was given psychoactive drugs in, say, 2006, more than six times as many were on these meds in, say, 2010. In addition to the aforementioned categories, the pills include plenty of antipsychotics, which are the treatment of choice for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, even though knowledgeable experts are not convinced of their effectiveness against that condition. But the military prescribes these substances to service members, not only post-trauma, but literally in the midst of the trauma, i.e., in combat. Friedman writes:
We have no idea whether it’s effective — or safe — to use antipsychotic drugs on a continuing basis to treat war-related stress or to numb or sedate those affected by it.
As if that weren’t bad enough, one of the possible side effects is tardive dyskinesia, which is not a disease in itself, but a movement disorder with many possible causes. Alan Wilson worked as a laborer for 25 years, and his doctor believes he got tardive dyskinesia from a flu shot. His daughter’s “About” narrative and updates are horrifying, and Ashley Wilson makes the point that if she had not been there to take him in, her father would now be homeless.
What, you may ask, is our point? Here it is: An excellent reason for familiarizing oneself with tardive dyskinesia is to stretch the compassion muscle. On the street or at the soup kitchen, that weirdly behaving person might not be a shiftless drunk or a burned-out crackhead. He or she might be a regular American with a solid work history, who was struck by a terrifying medical crisis. He or she might be a veteran who was overdosed with anti-psychotic meds. Just a thought.
Posted on October 22, 2013 by Pat Hartman
With several posts already covering corruption as it impacts homeless veterans, wouldn’t you think the subject would be exhausted? Apparently not. Let’s recap and then catch up.
In 1962, in Southeast Asia, the U.S. Military implemented Operation Ranch Hand, which sprayed herbicides to defoliate the area so there would be fewer places for the enemy to hide. Nobody even knows how much herbicide was involved. For Agent Orange alone, somewhere between 12 and 20 million gallons is the best guess.
Damaged veterans who tried to sue Monsanto were out of luck, partly because the company claimed that the military used the defoliant in Vietnam at “six to 25 times the rate suggested by the manufacturer,” so it wasn’t their fault. The military claimed it didn’t know how damaging the chemicals would be, either to the people of Vietnam whose hearts and minds they were supposedly trying to win, or to the American servicemen and servicewomen deployed there, and nothing can lessen the infamy of that untruth.
This information comes from a very long and detailed report published by the U.S. Veteran Dispatch, which says:
There are strong indications that not only were military officials aware as early as 1967 of the limited effectiveness of chemical defoliation, they knew of potential long-term health risks of frequent spraying and sought to keep that information from the public by managing news reports.
What’s the point of all this history? Tonight, there are Vietnam veterans in alleys and shelter beds who never were able to hold a job or pull themselves together, because of health conditions resulting from Agent Orange exposure for which they were unable to get any help.
In 1979 the National Veterans Task Force on Agent Orange was created, and charged with discovering just how many vets had been exposed. The Centers for Disease Control spent $43 million tax dollars on that project and ended up with results that the Institute of Medicine characterized as either “monumentally bungled” or “politically rigged.” All along, the occasional veteran had tried to sue the government for medical problems resulting from Agent Orange, but they were always blocked by something called the Feres Doctrine, which basically says no one can sue the government for anything that happens to them in the service.
In 1984, a new law required the Veterans Administration to get to work on establishing compensation standards for both soft tissue sarcoma (frequently associated with Agent Orange exposure) and atomic radiation damage. The VA did not, as the saying goes, get the memo. The agency that was created to help veterans continued to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to Agent Orange exposure claims.
Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Jr. was among the officers whose direct orders had caused Agent Orange to be sprayed. His son, also a Vietnam veteran, became fatally ill with Hodgkin’s disease and lymphoma and Zumwalt got on the case. He said the government “intentionally manipulated or withheld compelling information on the adverse health effects.” When this grieving, high-ranking father charged the government with denying justice to veterans, things began to happen.
Military scientist Dr. James Clary was one of the team that initially green-lighted Agent Orange. These lines are from a letter he wrote in 1988 to answer congressional questions:
We were aware of the potential for damage due to dioxin contamination in the herbicide. We were even aware that the ‘military’ formulation had a higher dioxin concentration than the ‘civilian’ version… However, because the material was to be used on the ‘enemy,’ none of us were overly concerned. We never considered a scenario in which our own personnel would become contaminated with the herbicide.
Wait, what? Hel-lo! Duh! And every other colloquial expression of utter dumbfoundment. Say that again? How could they not have noticed that the grunts — tens of thousands of them — were crawling around down on the ground, just like the Viet Cong? Here is what else Dr. Clary said:
And, if we had, we would have expected our own government to give assistance to veterans so contaminated.
Hah! Might as well expect assistance from the Tooth Fairy or a genie in a bottle. And then along came Tom Daschle, a senator from South Dakota, who cast all kinds of aspersions on the 1984 report about Operation Ranch Hand and the birth defects afflicting the children of service members who had encountered Agent Orange. An earlier version of the document showed certain results, but then there was monkey business, and Sen. Daschle said:
The Air Force deleted these findings from the final report at the suggestion of a Ranch Hand Advisory Committee set up by the White House Agent Orange Working Group.
Plus, there were two different versions of the minutes of the meeting in which that pressure was applied. Daschle called foul. The U.S. Veteran Dispatch says:
Part of the fraud appears to have been perpetrated by the Monsanto Corp., which produces a number of chemicals containing dioxin. Monsanto knowingly rigged test results of employees who had been exposed to dioxin to make the effects of it appear far less than it actually was… This type of fraud appears to have been perpetrated regularly in connection with Agent Orange research…
(To be continued…)
Posted on September 17, 2013 by Pat Hartman
In Part 2 of this discussion, House the Homeless blog traced progress in the quality of support offered to youth who “age out” of foster care. Members of this group are very much at risk for experiencing homelessness, and even short-term homelessness can have devastating effects on a young person.
Apparently, unless some kind of intervention scoops a kid up off the streets quickly, the prognosis worsens dramatically. There seems to be an interval of opportunity, a window that, once closed, is very difficult to reopen.
In 2004, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) scrutinized the situation in an attempt to measure the effectiveness of various programs and check up on how vigorously various plans were being carried out. Quoting ourselves:
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.
Along with sloppy compliance, the GAO also found “gaps in the availability of mental health services, mentoring services, and securing safe and suitable housing, particularly in rural areas.” In 2008, the states were told to follow up on kids set loose from the system to see what kind of “outcomes” or lives they were having, and to start doing it by October of 2010.
Compliance, of a sort
When did the first National Youth in Transition Database report see the light of day? In late 2012, meaning that so far, there has only been one national annual report on how these programs are working out, and its information is centered on 2011. The basic number the compilers worked with was 98,561 — the total of youth and young adults who received at least one independent living service. About half were in the 14-17 age group, which means they were probably still officially in foster care; and half were in the 18-21 age group, which means they were probably not under the court’s jurisdiction any more.
About 17,000 17-year-olds answered a survey about their “outcomes,” which is kind of a misleading term in this case, because they hadn’t “aged out” yet. A total of 93% of this group were going to school. The same percentage said they had at least one adult available for advice or emotional support. About one in five had some kind of job experience, which is broadly defined to include training programs and unpaid internships. Among the foster kids in this demographic, only 6% had been homeless at some point. And guess what — more than one-third of these still-in-the-system kids had experienced incarceration.
Making their way in the world
The National Resource Center for Youth Development keeps track of every state, so it is worth taking a microscopic look at one state, California, because it has big numbers and is often the pioneer in social movements. This report is less currant than the 2012 federal one — it harks back to 2009 — but it is more detailed and gives some idea of the situation.
Eighteen was the maximum age for youth in foster care to be funded by the state, except in certain particular cases. If they were still in high school and going to graduate before turning 19. Or if they were in college, which might be difficult, because the state provides no waiver of tuition for foster kids. Or if they were incapable of activities or had other barriers to employment, or if, conversely, they were working 80-hour weeks (in other words, holding down two full-time jobs). If any of these conditions were fulfilled, the law allowed them to remain in the system until age 21, and also to continue receiving Medi-Cal benefits.
Sounds pretty good, right? So why, in 2011, in the great progressive state of California, in the city of San Francisco, was there a bitter fight over something called the Cow Hollow housing project? The proposal was to buy a former “boutique tourist hotel” with 30 rooms and turn it into a housing project for 24 young people. Opponents claimed that 24 people was too many, according to the current zoning ordinance. (If so, how did that 30-room hotel operate?)
Matthew S. Bajko reported:
The development is being vehemently opposed by some nearby neighbors and merchants, whose concerns range from seeing property values plummet to whether the site is an appropriate location for at-risk youth. They point to the fact that nearby is the Bridge Hotel, a magnet for criminal activity that the city attorney’s office targeted last year for numerous code violations.
The Supervisor of the district, Mark Farrell, called the area “fraught with a lot of risk.” Meanwhile, a resident of the area wrote an open letter to the city’s politicians:
The Chestnut Street area is and has always been family friendly with little or no drunkenness or rowdiness and any changes to this would be most undesirable.
Do you see what they did? They argued it both ways. The area is both too rowdy for the tender sensibilities of former foster kids at risk of homelessness, AND too civilized to tolerate the presence of former foster kids at risk of homelessness. The area is too dangerous for older teenagers, yet so prime that the plummeting of property values is a dreaded possibility. The young people who need a place to live are characterized as both too threatened, and too threatening, and the whole thing is just a lousy idea, so please go do it in somebody else’s backyard.
Indeed, Supervisor Farrell suggested selling the property and using the money to buy another parcel somewhere outside his district. It’s not clear whether the Cow Hollow project is still in the appeal process, or the organizations gave up. In 2012, a similar establishment for the same clientele opened in the Tenderloin district. The main service providers concerned with the project were the Community Housing Partnership and Larkin Street Youth Services. Bajko quotes Larkin Street’s executive director, Sherilyn Adams, as saying:
I think that likely some of those concerns are based on not knowing or understanding the issues about youth in the foster care system or on the streets who are or were homeless… These are young people we are all responsible for ensuring have opportunities as full members of society.
Source: “First Report from National Youth in Transition Database,” Alliance1.org, 10/26/12
Source: “California,” NRCYD.ou.edu
Source: “Youth housing project causes uproar,” ebar.com, 07/14/11
Image by aprilzosia.
Posted on September 10, 2013 by Pat Hartman
In connection with the release of the whitepaper “Prevent Homelessness at its Core,” House the Homeless examined several of the more heavily travelled paths to Skid Row, where the embarkation point is release from institutions such as prisons, hospitals, the military, and the foster care system. Those reasons account for hundreds of thousands of people experiencing homelessness. Astonishingly, a plethora of other ways exists for an American to become, overnight, part of an underclass that too many other Americans wish would just disappear.
Fire is an ever-popular way to lose not only possessions but hope, and headlines routinely report the number of newly homeless people caused by any residential conflagration. In one particularly sad instance in Toledo, Ohio, pastor Steve North had rented a big old house that was part church, as journalist Gabrielle Russon described:
LifeLine wasn’t a typical church where people wore their best clothes and worshiped on Sunday morning. Instead, nearly 100 people came to Mr. North’s house on the first Saturday of each month. They stayed up late, eating food, listening to open-mic poetry, and talking. It was a ministry for low-income residents, to help them feel like they belonged somewhere.
North had just been out volunteering at the local tent city when his own family’s house burned, and he and his wife and their two children became as homeless as the people they had lovingly served.
How bad does a situation have to be, for someone to choose homelessness? Every year, ridiculous numbers of teenagers decide to stop enduring abuse from family members or step-parents, and escape to the streets. Sometimes, if the person achieves a measure of fame, the world hears about it later. Tyler Perry, for instance, had to get away from a father “whose answer to everything was to beat it out of you.” The young man dropped out of school, took off, and lived in a car for a time. Thanks to his incredible determination and sterling work ethic, Tyler Perry because an immensely successful filmmaker and performer.
MSNBC reporter Seamus McGraw related the story of a beauty contest winner who told him, “Anyone can fall victim to this” — “this” being homelessness. Blair Griffith, whose father had died of cancer, was Miss Colorado Teen in 2006. After some time went by, her mother had a heart attack and required $800 worth of meds every month. Griffith won the title of Miss Colorado USA in 2011, and a month later, sheriff’s officers showed up with an eviction notice and removed Griffith and her mother from their home. Around the same time, the young woman also lost her day job. Fortunately, friends took them in and they were able to start rebuilding their lives.
In the public imagination, and to some extent in real life, addiction leads to homelessness. What some critics refuse to take into account is that not every person with a substance abuse problem got there voluntarily. This article from RitalinAbuseHelp.com emphasizes how many children have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and made to take pharmaceuticals. He writes:
… [A]dults who use Ritalin may have been diagnosed with the disorder at very young ages. Over time, doctors increase the dosages to deal with the changes in a patient’s weight and behavior, but somewhere along the way users may abuse the drug and become addicted… [A] drug meant to help now controls the individual, which can lead to losing a job, family and home.
A person can be brought low by one piece of serious bad luck, which often takes the form of a head injury. While researching a column about the organization Common Ground, journalist David Bornstein encountered a detail that brought him a “jolting realization”:
… [A]nybody could become like a homeless person — all it takes is a traumatic brain injury. A bicycle fall, a car accident, a slip on the ice, or if you’re a soldier, a head wound — and your life could become unrecognizable. James O’Connell, a doctor who has been treating the most vulnerable homeless people on the streets of Boston for 25 years, estimates that 40 percent of the long-term homeless people he’s met had such a brain injury.
Bornstein also spoke with Becky Kanis of Common Ground, who described a mindset that perceives the person experiencing homelessness as “almost in their DNA different from someone who has a house.” That is an excellent point. Despite the fact that someone without shelter is likely to be of any race or gender or age, the imagination of Mr. or Ms. J. Q. Public tends to classify the homeless person as somehow “other.” And as we have seen, it isn’t so. Bornstein wraps up the thought:
Many of the errors in our homelessness policies have stemmed from the conception that the homeless are a homogeneous group. It’s only in the past 15 years that organizations […] have taken a more granular, street-level view of the problem — disaggregating the ‘episodically homeless’ from the ‘chronically homeless’ in order to understand their needs at an individual level.
Source: “Fire damages homeless advocate’s home,” ToledoBlade.com, 11/01/11
Source: “Tyler Perry biography,” Biography.com
Source: “Homeless Miss Colorado: ‘Anyone can fall victim to this’,” TODAY.com, 2012
Source: “The Relationship between Homelessness and Ritalin Addiction,” RitalinAbuseHelp.com
Source: “The Street-Level Solution,” The New York Times, 12/24/10
Image by Ed Yourdon.
Posted on September 3, 2013 by Pat Hartman
This 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
Posted on August 27, 2013 by Pat Hartman
In 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?
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.
Posted on August 20, 2013 by Pat Hartman
Last 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!)
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.