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Demographic Bulge Casts a Shadow

homelessIn many ways, American cities are alike. In all of them, the post-World War II demographic bulge is in the process of creating what some call the “silver tsunami.” A sizeable group known as “pre-seniors,” age 55 to 64, will hit retirement age over the next few years.

The economy is enormously damaged, and retirees who have been careful all their lives, and who have made conservative financial choices and prudent investments, are caught short. Financial embarrassment is suffered even by people who started their savings accounts in grade school. Their reserves run out, and yet they live.

What happens then? Some universal issues are the need for transportation; more healthcare workers for seniors; and of course, affordable housing.

Of course, cities are also different. House the Homeless has been looking at Austin, Texas, as the proverbial “canary in a coal mine.” What happens there is probably predictive of what will happen in other cities — not randomly, but because Austin is the kind of place that other cities regard as an example. Austin distinguishes itself by the presence of folks like The Statesman staff writer Jeremy Schwartz, who investigates such matters as why so many seniors are falling into poverty, and even experiencing homelessness.

Schwartz devoted considerable time to interviewing seniors, their advocates and care providers, and various officials, and obtained the expertise of Christian McDonald, a database editor, to analyze statistics. They came up with some numbers worth knowing:

In 2010, just 7 percent of residents within the [Austin] city limits were older than 65, about half the national figure. But during the past decade, the city’s small elderly population grew by 27 percent, twice the national rate… The number of elderly residents living in poverty has increased 42 percent in Central Texas over the last 10 years, according to the U.S. census… The Central Texas graying trend is sure to strengthen in coming years because the number of so-called pre-seniors — those from 55 to 64 — grew 110 percent here in the past decade, a figure that led the nation.

Many seniors receive small amounts from Social Security, because they only held low-paying jobs, or because they were stay-at-home parents. Schwartz says, “Spousal benefits average less than half of full benefits for retired workers, according to the Social Security Administration.”

The SSI payment for extremely low-income seniors is, on average, just a tick over $400 a month. The waiting lists for federally subsidized low-income senior housing can run into years.

Every now and then, someone takes a stab at reckoning the value of work done by a stay-at-home parent, who is usually the mother. This year, calculations were done by Investopedia, and the breakdown is given by Porcshe Moran, who says:

We examined some of the tasks that a homemaker might do, to find out how much his or her services would net as individual professional careers. We only take into consideration tasks which have monetary values and use the lowest value for each calculation… These services could earn a homemaker a considerable wage if he or she took those skills to the marketplace.

Between the duties of private chef, house cleaner, child care expert, personal driver, laundry service, and lawn maintenance person, each with its proportionate number of hours, Investopedia figures that the average homemaker would, if paid, earn $96,261 per year. The number doesn’t even include the even more occasional part-time occupations, such as nurse, house painter, tutor, researcher, tax preparer, and numerous others. Even so, it’s creeping right up on $100,000.

Women in the baby-boom generation earned less than men during their working years, and many earned nothing at all because they were stay-at-home wives and mothers. A homemaker who reaches retirement age does not draw a monthly Social Security benefit appropriate to a $96,000-a-year job. A single mother who reaches retirement age, or who is disabled, has less to live on than someone who performed the same job, domestic manager, out in the working world for an actual employer. A widow is not paid benefits based on her work as a domestic manager, but based on her husband’s salary. This might be under $500 per month.

Women in general live longer than men, so the “silver tsunami” consists mainly of women, who tend to be paid at the lower end of the Social Security scale, and not so much of men, who in general would receive more. So the country will soon be full of people who are not only living on Social Security, but at the poverty end of its spectrum.

The maximum disability payment is $698 a month, or less than half of the federal minimum wage. According to the last several U.S. Conference of Mayors reports, no one working at a full-time, minimum-wage job can afford to get into and keep a one-bedroom apartment anywhere in the country. If a person employed at the minimum wage can’t afford an apartment, what does that say about the chances of an unemployed disabled person who makes half as much?

As a general principle, House the Homeless feels that any full-time job ought to pay enough to put a person in an apartment, and any subsidy paycheck for those who have to depend on the government should be enough to put them in an apartment. And then there’s the concept of the Universal Living Wage, which this would be a good time to think more about and get behind.

Reactions?

Source: “Austin not ready for ‘silver tsunami’ of poor seniors, experts warn,” Statesman.com, 04/08/12
Source: “How Much Is A Homemaker Worth?,” Investopedia, 01/16/12
Image by jxandreani, used under its Creative Commons license.

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“Quality of Life” Ordinances — the Way Forward

City of Austin Code of OrdinancesIn the mid-1980s, homelessness had again begun to manifest itself in the United States. In 1988, the U.S. Congress declared it had reached a crisis level and passed the McKinney Vento Act in an effort to find funding solutions to end homelessness.

In 1989, Richard R. Troxell founded Legal Aid for the Homeless in Austin, TX, where he repeatedly went through an 18-month process to get disabled individuals experiencing homelessness disability benefits. It turned out that this benefit was about half the amount earned under the federal minimum wage.

At same time, the U.S. Conference of Mayors began issuing reports that concluded that no one can get into — and keep — basic rental housing anywhere in this country even when working full-time at a minimum-wage job. The federal government was setting standards so low that it was the single greatest manufacturer of homelessness!

In 1997, Richard R. Troxell set out to “fix” the federal minimum wage. To this end, he designed a three-pronged formula using existing government guidelines that ensures that if a person works 40 hours per week, be it from one job or two, he or she will be able to afford basic food, clothing, and shelter (including utilities), wherever that work is done throughout the United States. Clearly, this relates to people who can work.

In the 1990s, at the behest of the business communities across America who felt under attack by people experiencing homelessness, municipalities began to pass “Quality of Life” Ordinances and to share their success among themselves. These ordinances include: no camping, no panhandling/soliciting (aggressive or non-aggressive), no sitting/lying on sidewalks, etc.

The following is the Power Point Summary of House the Homeless, Inc.’s efforts to bring the City of Austin’s “No Sit/ No Lie” Ordinance, as it relates to people who cannot work, in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

View and/or download the presentation by clicking below.

Finding a way forward

View more presentations from House the Homeless.
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Austin Music Scene Is a Vital Cultural Force

Austin Guitar TownAustin, Texas, gets a lot of coverage here at House the Homeless. The fact that the House the Homeless organization is located there and devotes a great deal of energy to the city is only a secondary reason. The main thing is, Austin is a city that will be legendary in the future, like Athens and Alexandria are now.

People keep an eye on Austin, just like they pay attention to what goes on in New York or San Francisco, where they don’t even live, and never will. Even though in some ways Austin is in a class by itself, it faces the same issues as any metropolis. The difference between cities is not in their problems, but in their responses. Austin is a beautiful microcosm of everything that’s great about America. It’s almost an ideal melting pot, where cultures do not compete, but embrace and mingle.

One example of true hipness is the music scene, which has been wildly eclectic since the 60s, and probably before. (If anyone would like to say how much farther back the musical precocity really started, please comment!) A mind-boggling number of musicians either came from Austin or migrated to Austin. Michael Martin Murphey’s “Alleys of Austin” is one of the most beautiful songs ever sung. It’s a unique, amazing music town, and the South by Southwest music festival has contributed enormously to that reputation.

During the most recent iteration of the festival, an entrepreneurial venture was launched which involved people experiencing homelessness, and it made international news. Another interesting business idea put into motion more than three years back, we learn from Mark Horvath, in a 3:42 video clip viewable at his Hardly Normal website, and every link on that page is worth following.

Here is Horvath’s brief description of the project he characterizes as “a brilliant idea,” launched by Alan Graham:

I have been telling everyone about his catering trucks and how he rapid houses homeless people in RVs. Well Alan is at it again, this time trying to create ways for our homeless friends to generate income… Mobile Loaves and Fishes new Street Treats program… Basically, Alan empowers a homeless person to make some money, with the intent to save up and restore housing, by selling ice cream around downtown Austin.

But, let’s get back to the music scene, which has a dark side. One of the long, hard struggles taken on by House the Homeless was to defend people against a harsh “No Sit/No Lie” ordinance. The embarrassing connection to the world of music is that the original ordinance, passed in 2005, included an exception for those who rest while in line waiting to pay for concert tickets. Someone hoping to buy a thing not necessary for life was allowed to sit on a sidewalk. Someone in poor health, and homeless, waiting for a medical appointment or a meal, was not allowed to sit on a sidewalk. That was a pretty inhumane situation.

The outcome of the struggle is described by Richard R. Troxell:

After a year, we forced a compromise giving people with disabilities up to 30 minute respites in deference to their medical needs. As a result, in 2011, Austin became the first city in the nation to bring our No Sit/No Lie ordinance in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Perhaps now we can simply install enough benches for folks to sit down in a civilized fashion and thereby inch closer to becoming the world class city that we aspire to be.

There is another unhealthy relationship between the music scene and the homeless scene. Music venues usually feature alcohol, and, by coincidence, alcohol is the downfall of a certain percentage of people who slide into homelessness. Nationally, Richard reminds us, the health care costs resulting from alcoholism run into the trillions. His article also includes many very interesting ideas we won’t attempt to summarize here. To explain them adequately and persuasively is, after all, why he wrote the article in the first place. But one more quote:

In overview, we can see that with clear vision, new perspective and collectively involving the city, the citizens of Austin, federal and state governments and the business community in a fair, equitable, balanced and profitable fashion, we can end homelessness as it exists today.

In Austin, this especially applies to the involvement of citizens and business in the Waller Creek project, which is inextricably related to the area’s thriving music “ecosystem.” The design plan for this massive project has been narrowed down to the suggestions of four semi-finalists. A year ago, Shonda Novak and Marty Toohey wrote for the Austin Statesman that the creek “has become a trash-strewn stream and a hangout for vagrants.” They quoted a property owner who said:

You can have all the dreams in the world of what Waller Creek is to be like, but it’s not going to happen if we don’t deal with the transient population. The City Council needs to step up to the plate and pass stronger laws and insist that the police enforce them and the judges back them up.

Since then, how much has been done to assure that people experiencing homelessness will get some jobs out of this costly project? How much has been said about them in any other context than of a nuisance to be gotten rid of? The answer is, not much. This is the time for musicians and venue owners to make some noise about alleviating homelessness.

Musicians are some of the world’s nicest people, who can be astonishingly effective when they get motivated. When a musician reaches a level of fame, the results can be awesome. When Willie Nelson signed on to sue the Monsanto corporation, that was big news, and there are many other examples of this beneficent wielding of personal power.

Recently, we talked about how author Richard Florida cited Austin as an example of the Creative City, defining the music scene as one of its big three forces. The music universe has so much energy and influence. Look what the New Orleans musicians have accomplished, not only for fellow musicians, but for their city as a whole.

Austin is another such city, the kind of place where magic can happen. This is a blatant request for comments from the Austin music community about its unsung heroes. Please brag here, about the ways in which you have helped the homeless.

Source: “Street Treats: The Other SXSW Homeless Campaign in Downtown,” Hardly Normal, 03/31/12
Source: “How to end homelessness in Austin: A plan,” CultureMap Austin, 02/08/12
Source: “Private conservancy outlines plan to rescue, revive Waller Creek,” Statesman.com, 04/27/11
Image by pixajen, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Unaccompanied Homeless Teens

Homeless couple with dogRecently, House the Homeless talked about a report called “When the Bough Breaks: The Effects of Homelessness on Young Children” (PDF). One of the points it made is that children without stable homes are more than twice as likely as others to repeat a school grade, be expelled or suspended, or drop out of high school.

There is an elementary school in Las Vegas with about 600 kids enrolled, of whom about 500 are homeless. This is happening in America! Stories of student homelessness come from Green Bay, Wisconsin; from Chillicothe, Ohio; New York, south Florida, Oregon. Everywhere.

Take Sacramento County, California, where in 2007, the number of children without stable housing was 5,120. By the time 2009 rolled around, they had 7,254 homeless kids. In one county. Which happens to be the county where the state capital resides. It’s very similar to Washington, D.C., capital of the nation. The metroplex that includes the District of Columbia and parts of Maryland and Virginia is populated by the truly astonishing numbers of people experiencing homelessness. And politicians, and lobbyists working against every right and interest of the average person.

A while back, Kevin Sieff wrote inspiringly about a program in that very part of the country. First, he explains that according to federal law, every school district needs to have a homeless liaison. There is some federal money for homeless students, but it’s for things like transportation and tutoring. If the kid has nowhere to live, that’s the business of some other agency.

But not the business of the bureaucracy known as Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In HUD’s book, if a kid is sleeping on a relative’s floor, that counts as being housed. HUD is only able to help a kid who lives in a shelter or a car, or the actual street.

Those in the greatest need are helped first. It’s not unfair, but it does get in the way of keeping track of how many young individuals are drifting around like flotsam. Looking at it this way, they can be divided into two sub-populations, the definitively homeless and the technically, but just barely, housed.

Sieff explains another reason why the numbers are tricky, when using a different lens or filter:

The statistics from each school system reflect only homeless teens who have managed to continue their studies despite a lack of permanent shelter. Those who have dropped out are not included in these counts.

So that’s another way of defining sub-populations — the kids who try to stay in school and the kids who gave up. A lot of other variables complicate each individual picture, too. Contrary to popular belief, many young people are homeless through no fault or desire of their own.

The reporter’s main story concerned the Homeless Youth Initiative, a program described as an “experimental partnership” between the schools of Fairfax County and a place called Alternative House, and $170,000 of federal grant money designated for the housing of students. The county contains about 2000 homeless students, and about 200 of those are what the state calls “unaccompanied.”

Sieff says:

Most of the students use a $450 monthly rental subsidy funded by the federal stimulus package to stay in apartments they find on Craigs-list.

Some of these emancipated teens live on their own, and some are placed with families. They go to school and work part-time. When Sieff wrote about the program, its future was in doubt. The federal stimulus dollars are only an emergency stopgap or bridge, set to expire. The funding is so important because it helps kids stabilize their situations. A young person needs firm ground to stand on, when getting ready for the battle to find the ever-elusive living-wage job.

Somehow, the Fairfax county program is still hanging on. HYI’s own website says:

The Homeless Youth Initiative consists of three parts:

— An Alternative House single family home where four young women reside;
— Private host homes; and
— Small rent subsidies to help students with renting a room in the community.

All of the youth participating in the Homeless Youth Initiative receive housing and community support, as well as case management services, individual therapy, life skills education, tutoring, and assistance with emergency food and supplies.

The program arranges matches between homeless high school students and families who offer living space and companionship, very much like what happens when an American family hosts a foreign exchange student. The program has won praise from the Interagency Council on Homelessness, but however great a model it might be, the odds against replicating it in other places are formidable.

Only two counties in the whole country have median household incomes of over $100,000 a year, and Fairfax is one of them. The government says there are about a million homeless students in the country, so all we need — in communities that are nowhere near as prosperous — is approximately several thousand more programs like this..

And the Universal Living Wage!

Reactions?

Source: “Number of homeless students in Sacramento County schools jumps 50%-plus,” The Sacramento Bee, 07/14/11
Source: “Schools cope with shelterless students,” The Washington Post, 12/26/10
Source: “Homeless Youth Initiative (HYI),” TheAlternativeHouse.org
Image by Franco Folini, used under its Creative Commons license.

 

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Affording to Live

cost of rent

To rent a two-bedroom apartment in Hawaii, you need either a job that pays $31.68 per hour, or four minimum-wage jobs. Closer to 4.5, actually. In California, you need either a job that pays $26.02 per hour, or more than three minimum-wage jobs. And so on.

This is a much-simplified sample of the kind of information available from the report called “Out of Reach 2012,” compiled by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. You can download the entire report on its website, or various charts and graphs such as the one at the top left of the page, which is much easier to read in full size.

It would be interesting to have overlay maps, to see where all the empty foreclosed properties are, and the areas where the most people are away in jail, and where the largest concentrations of homeless people are, and several other variables, compared to these rent figures.

We learn from Aaron Sankin in The Huffington Post that the very most expensive place to live isn’t a state at all, but a metropolitan area which includes the District of Columbia and parts of Virginia and Maryland. By strange coincidence, this is the very area where the people who make the laws live, and also the ones who influence and reward the lawmakers on behalf of corporations. By another strange coincidence, Washington, D.C., our nation’s capital, contains an enormous number of people experiencing homelessness.

Across the nation, the rate of home ownership is the lowest since 1998, so, naturally, more people are looking for places to rent. Good luck with that, prospective renters! Reviewing the Out of Reach information, Sankin says:

The report notes that the number of low-cost rental properties around the country have shrunk as a growing fraction are converted into significantly more expensive units or left to fall into disrepair and taken off the market entirely. Between 2007 and 2010, the number of properties priced at under $500 per month dropped by one million, while those going for over $1,205 increased by two million.

Economic homelessness is the concept introduced by Richard R. Troxell in Looking Up At the Bottom Line. The economic homeless are the working poor who have some kind of a job, but don’t make nearly enough to rent even the most rudimentary and utilitarian kind of apartment.

If you want to get your heart broken, read about Project Fresh Start. At one point, Troxell obtained funding for a program in which 20 adults went through a “continuum of care” program, and found work and housing. Within two years, all were homeless again, not through personal failings or lack of trying, but because people just can’t live on what they make. Richard writes:

We had gotten downtrodden people engaged, brushed off, detoxified, job trained, placed in jobs, and into housing only to realize that they were destined to fail as the wage, set by the federal government, would not sustain them. This was a powerful epiphany.

Like any epiphany worthy of the name, this one led to action: the proposal for the Universal Living Wage. The idea is to fix the Federal Minimum Wage by indexing it to the local cost of housing throughout the United States. The military already does this. In many places, not all military personnel live within the borders of the installations. When the government calculates their off-base housing and separate rations allotments, it goes according to the geography and the local cost of living. It’s not rocket science.

At least 40% of people experiencing homelessness, are working at some point during the week. Clearly, the work ethic is there, but the wage to afford basic housing is not. Richard points out that minimum-wage gigs used to be “starter” jobs, just a dip of the toe into the water, to learn what the world of work is all about, before a person would move on to a career or a real job and a union membership, something more solid. But now, an American is more likely to be trying to support an entire family on a minimum-wage job, that is, if a job can be obtained at all.

But why tell the whole story here? Please accept this invitation to the Universal Living Wage website, where there is so much more. It opens up a new world of possibility.

Reactions?

Source: “Out of Reach 2012,” NLIHC.org, 2012
Source: “San Francisco Rents The Highest Of Any City In Country,” The Huffington Post, 03/14/12
Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Amazon.com
Image of “Out of Reach 2012″ map (left) is used under Fair Use: Reporting.
Chart of the right is by Pat Hartman.

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Homeless Hotspots at SXSW Cause Uproar

ClarenceThis year, the biggest news to come out of the SXSW festival had nothing to do with music or film. Even the technology angle was not the focus. No, it was the wording on the T-shirts of the 15 homeless people hired by BBH Labs to sell Internet access to visitors. (Some of their bios are available at the advertising company’s website.)

The problem is, each shirt proclaimed, for instance, “I’m Mark, a 4G Hotspot,” implying that Mark is a thing rather than a person. So the big complaint came from grammar wonks like TV personality Jon Stewart. Not from the people experiencing homelessness, who were delighted with the opportunity to be ambulatory “wifi hotspot managers,” even if it was only for a couple of days. They liked both the income and the chance to interact with the public in an unaccustomed way.

The “homeless hotspot” phenomenon was called shocking, disgraceful, shameful, dehumanizing, outrageous, undignified, demeaning, problematic, gimmicky, dystopian, and awful. BBH was accused of perpetrating a publicity stunt that used the homeless as a commodity or as vending machines.

Homeless advocate Mark Horvath came out in favor. Homeless advocate Maria Foscarini came out against. Newspapers as far away as Australia and Turkey picked up the story. The amount of media coverage is beyond belief. If Americans had paid a fraction of this attention to the multi-trillion-dollar bank bailouts, the entire political landscape might have been different.

First, reports from knowledgeable people on the ground, so to speak, in Austin itself. Mitchell Gibbs is on staff at Front Steps, the organization through which the participants were recruited. According to the Associated Press:

He was initially skeptical after being approached by BBH, but was won over by previous work they’ve done with the homeless. He put the offer to participants in the shelter’s Case Management Program, a step-by-step program to move people out of shelters and off the streets.

Melissa Gaskill, who writes about the city’s unique culture, points out that no one was forced to take these jobs, and no one appeared to be hurt by the experience. Her editor classified it as a “creative labor idea.”

Gaskill interviewed Alan Graham of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, who has worked with the homeless for years, and who characterized the whole thing as “brilliant.” He dismissed the charge of exploitation, because the workers were paid a fair wage, and besides, every commercial interaction in the world can be interpreted as exploitative.

The journalist recorded some very quotable words from Graham:

I thought it was a great way to call attention to the company and to people who really want to work. Every one of those guys doing it were having a great time, and none of them felt exploited… What people are really complaining about is that they don’t want to be faced with the homeless issue: not here, at an event that’s cool, hip, and fun and maybe a little elitist and materialistic.

Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless saw mostly positive reactions, and noted that there was also an inadvertent side benefit for other people experiencing homelessness in Austin, who might have gotten a little WiFi for their own electronic devices. This was a small-scale, short-term experiment, whose effectiveness may have been impossibly skewed by the firestorm of publicity.

Richard reminds us that for him and the people he represents, any plan to employ the homeless should first be about dignity and fairness. Hiring the homeless is a good deal if the employer pays a living wage — sufficient to afford basic food, clothing, and shelter (including utilities). Using their homeless status to promote the product or issue, not so good.

For Technorati writer Lorraine Esposito, the old saying was applicable — “No good deed goes unpunished.” Here is her summation:

The Good Deeds:

— Provide the needed Internet access to thousands of SXSW convention goers. Responding to the calls for service, BBH New York found a solution with a heart.
— Offer homeless people the prospect of earning money, connecting with people, and feeling self-respect and hope again. BHH invested equipment, mentorship, training, and created the infrastructure of support and publicity to enable homeless people to profit in this opportunity.

The Punishment:

— Criticism levied upon BBH for duping the homeless with a “demoralizing” exploitation of their need to earn money.
— Deny the privilege of employment. Media pressure forced BBH to cancel the project three days early.
— Humiliation and victimization of the homeless at the hands of the media, not BBH.

Besides, she asked one of the participants, Hurricane Katrina victim Clarence Jones, who said:

Everyone thinks I’m getting the rough end of the stick, but I don’t feel that. I love talking to people and it’s a job. An honest day of work and pay.

BBH denies that the experiment was terminated early. If it was, it’s a pity for the people who were hired. Plus, the public reaction might have spoiled things for the homeless of New York, too, because the ad agency had planned to put the program into effect there, and now that plan is on hold.

In The Daily Beast, Lee Stringer, who has personally been homeless, offered a spirited rebuttal to critics:

This was an initiative of a for-profit corporate entity. No-one’s jaw need drop open when they do this, even if non-domiciled persons are involved… I took in an average of $40 a day digging refundable cans and bottles out of the trash. There were others on the street who panhandled for cash. Given a choice, I’d take toting a WiFi modem around over both, as far as dignity is concerned. Plus, five minutes at it, me being me, and my customers would know who I am and what I am about.

The Huffington Post writer Tanene Allison — who has also experienced homelessness — made some acerbic remarks:

I’ve never heard so many thought leaders talk about homelessness before! Definitely not as many people expressed such outrage over the newly proposed policy in NYC, which would make it incredibly hard for homeless individuals to have access to even basic shelter… If all the thought and technology leaders gathered in Austin want to pause to talk about homelessness — imagine the great potential of good if they put their smarts, their abilities and their passions into creating new solutions.

Perhaps the most cogent suggestion of all was made by Austin’s Craig Blaha, who totally nailed it when he wrote for Technorati:

If Homeless Hotspots really pisses you off, protest by donating directly to Front Steps Shelter, the National Coalition for the Homeless, or your local homeless organization. Put your money where your mouth is and leave a note in the comments section telling us just how much you donated, and to which organization.

Reactions?

Source: “’Homeless Hotspot’ stunt stirs debate at SXSW,” KHOU.com, 03/13/12
Source: “Homeless hotspots at SXSW: Opportunity or just exploitation?,” CultureMap Austin, 03/15/12
Source: “Punishing the Homeless,” Technorati, 03/15/12
Source: “Don’t Be So Quick to Condemn the Homeless Hot Spots Idea, Writes Lee Stringer,” The Daily Beast, 03/14/12
Source: “What Happens When SXSW Meets Austin’s Homeless,” The Huffington Post, 03/14/12
Source: “Austin Homeless Hotspots,” Technorati, 03/15/12
Image by Jorge Rivas of Colorlines, used under Fair Use: Reporting.

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Homeless Children in America

Come see usIn a BBC documentary aired last month, the TV journalists visit a free health clinic where a nightmarishly endless hallway is lined on both sides with hopeful patients. It shows us Detroit, where there are plenty of empty houses, but people live in tent cities. Why does America have thousands upon thousands of empty buildings from sea to shining sea, while people live under tarps in the woods? What’s up with that?

In the documentary, an expert is interviewed, who says, if you ask poor families, “Did your children have enough to eat?,” the overwhelming bulk of them will say “Yes.” Hey, Mr. Expert, maybe they’re afraid that if they answer “No,” the child protection authorities will take their kids away and assign them to foster homes. The astonishing statement is made that a million and a half children are homeless in America.

The Campaign to End Child Homelessness says, “approximately 1.6 million American children go to sleep without a home of their own each year,” and a casual Googling finds the one-and-a-half-million number often repeated. But then the National Alliance to End Homelessness says:

On a given night, just over 636,000 people are homeless in the United States.

And only a fraction of the total is made up of children, so that comes out to way less than a million and a half. The problem here is, they’re talking about two different methods of counting. Not every child who becomes homeless stays that way forever. A lot of their families find accommodations, sooner or later.

Another set of information comes from The State of Homelessness in America 2012, a PDF report that can be downloaded from the linked page. Strangely, this report does not offer a count of children, per se, but includes them in the category “families with children.” It says:

The number of people in families with children makes up 37 percent of the overall population, a total of 236,181 people in 77,186 family households.

To count as a family household, there has to be at least one child, so at a very bare minimum, there are at least 77,000 homeless children at any given time. This report also talks about kids who “age out” of foster care, “throwaway children,” and unaccompanied homeless youth. Runaways count as homeless during their escapades, but most go home within a week.

So, at some point during any year, more than a million and a half children experience homelessness, even if only for a very short time. And, on any specific day or night, tens of thousands of children are unquestionably homeless.

Even if the numbers are not as large as we were led to believe, that is unfortunately no consolation. For each one of those unformed humans, every disruption, every move, every loss, every new set of people to get used to, every school switch, and every change of environment takes its toll.

House the Homeless mentioned the report from Child Trends, “When the Bough Breaks: The Effects of Homelessness on Young Children.” This is also a downloadable PDF file that tells us:

Lack of regular, stable housing, and the resulting transitions, can negatively affect children’s development, including their physical, social-emotional, and cognitive development. Children who are homeless may suffer from hunger, poor physical and emotional health, and missed educational opportunities.

We’re talking about three times the emotional and behavioral problems that housed kids have. We’re talking about hyperactivity, attention deficit, withdrawal, aggression, poor impulse control, anxiety, depression, sleep problems, learning disabilities, below-grade-level academic performance, and lower IQ scores. As a risk factor, being poor and homeless is much worse than being just plain poor. Just think, all these thousands of messed up kids are the future of America, and the future is not looking good.

A very recent Huffington Post story mentions research from Harvard’s Center on the developing child which warns of the bad consequences when the developing brain circuits of young children are interfered with. And what causes that interference? The stress of being homeless, or even housed and poor:

Over the past two decades, researchers have accumulated a mass of information about the effects of stress on young children. What they’ve found is that extreme and persistent stress can mold the architecture of the developing brain in lasting ways… kids who grow up poor are often exposed to circumstances that produce high levels of stress hormones, a condition known as toxic stress.

One of the issues discussed in the BBC documentary is the controversy over a politician suggesting that kids might be employed at assistant janitor jobs. He is accused of advocating child labor, perhaps unfairly — maybe he had teenage “kids” in mind. But what really upset some critics was the particular job he suggested, which involves mopping floors and cleaning bathrooms.

Guess what? There is nothing degrading in custodial work. The attitude that nobody should have to do cleaning work is absurd, because the environments we inhabit obviously need to be cleaned. In a hospital, where so many patients pick up infections, a conscientious janitor might save more lives in a day than a doctor does. The notion that something is wrong if a youth works as a cleaner is an insult to every person who ever held a maintenance job, the present writer included.

So forget that pointless nonsense. What about paying the grownups who hold those jobs sufficiently so their kids don’t have to even think about working, and can stay in school long enough to get a diploma? What about paying the adult janitors enough so their kids can sleep under a roof instead of in a car? Seems like that would be a much more productive topic for discussion. Please consider this your invitation to learn about possibilities offered by the Universal Living Wage.

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Source: “Poor America – Panorama BBC,” YouTube.com, 02/13/12
Source: “Obama Budget: Congress Weighs Homeless Children’s ‘Toxic Stress’,” The Huffington Post, 02/16/12
Image by
Valerie Everett, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Children Experiencing Homelessness

Families WelcomeFor several decades, American children learned to read from primers that starred Dick and Jane, along with baby Sally, and Mother and Father, of course, and Spot the dog, and Puff the cat, and Tim the stuffed bear. They lived in a house with a wooden fence around it.

In the 1960s, consciousness arose that not all children are white, and textbooks changed. As social conventions evolved, fewer kids grew up in homes equipped with two parents. Assumptions about family situations could no longer be made. In class discussions and activities, teachers learned to tread carefully.

Now, we are in an era when it cannot even be taken for granted that a child sleeps beneath a roof. In the best-case scenario, home might be a church shelter, or a van. We are looking at a brand-new report (PDF format) from Child Trends, authored by Marci McCoy-Roth, Bonnie B. Mackintosh and David Murphey, and titled “When the Bough Breaks: The Effects of Homelessness on Young Children.”

It is worth pausing for a moment to remember the words of this traditional bedtime nursery song:

Rockabye baby, in the tree top.
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock.
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,
And down will come baby, cradle, and all.

The lyrics are strange indeed, considering that the purpose of a lullaby is to comfort a child into sleep. For too many children, the words are prophetic. The report says:

The National Center on Family Homelessness reports that more than 1.6 million children — or one in 45 children — were homeless annually in America between 2006 and 2010. It is estimated that 40 percent of homeless children, or roughly 640,000 over that timeframe, were under the age of six… Some homeless families are not using shelter programs. The HUD report found that approximately 21 percent were living in places not intended for housing (e.g., in public spaces, cars, etc.).

Unlike Dick and Jane of yore, a homeless child is likely to have only one parent, and that one is almost certainly the mother. According to the report:

… [F]amilies currently represent a much larger percentage of the shelter population than ever before. Similar to other families living in poverty, the typical homeless family is headed by a young, single woman in her 20s, with limited education (often less than a high school degree), with two children (one or both under the age of 6 years old).

Forget about Spot; a homeless child’s acquaintance with the animal kingdom is more likely to include bedbugs and rats. If she or he owns a teddy bear, it came from the annual fire department holiday toy drive or from a dumpster out back of a strip mall.

And the lack of pets and playthings is the least of their worries. The child experiencing homelessness is more likely to suffer from hunger than the housed counterpart. Homeless kids have more health problems and less access to doctors. It’s difficult for the youngest to get into preschool, and even if they can, the parents lack transportation to take them there.

Moving is traumatic in and of itself. Changing schools is traumatic in and of itself. A homeless child is likely to do both, several times, within the course of a year. This is known, in the social sciences trade, as “turbulence” and it’s not good. Turbulence leads to emotional and behavioral problems, and sometimes those problems are exacerbated by separation from parents and siblings, or even cause such separations to take place.

The report mentions foster care as a possibility. The times, they are a-changin’, and nobody keeps up with them better than Eric Sheptock, known as the Homeless Homeless Advocate.

After President Obama’s visit to Washington, D.C.’s biggest shelter, whose kitchen feeds 5,000 people every day, Sheptock not only reviewed the event, but listed some ways in which the President has both helped and failed the homeless. Perhaps Sheptock is unduly pessimistic, but based on recent occurrences, he foresees the danger of legislation that would mandate the removal of children from the custody of homeless adults:

Any parent who is homeless with a child will have the child taken away and put up for adoption. One might think that the government would take the money that it spends on adoption and put that toward housing the biological parent and their child(ren). But they’d much rather break-up families. Sad.

House the Homeless has said basically the same thing:

How insane can it get? When kids are taken away and put into foster care, somebody has to be paid for taking care of them. As long as the sum is going to be paid out anyway, wouldn’t it make sense to just pay that mother the same amount, to take care of her own kids?

Well, it’s one way to bring down the statistics. Children in foster care are not technically considered homeless, so it looks better on paper. Who cares if they are removed from families for no better reason than economic distress that could be relieved in better ways? The Child Trends report also notes that at least a quarter of homeless children have witnessed violence, and adds:

According to reports by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, more than 80 percent of mothers with children experiencing homelessness have previously experienced domestic violence, and their children are more likely to have emotional and behavioral problems.

Richard R. Troxell points to an important source of information on the critical connection between violence and economics, a government study titled “When Violence Hits Home: How Economics and Neighborhood Play a Role.” Created under the auspices of John Ashcroft, it says:

Women living in households with high incomes experienced less violence at the hands of their intimate partners than did women whose households were less financially secure. The results showed a very consistent pattern: As the ratio of household income to needs goes up, the likelihood of violence goes down.

In other words, although domestic violence is found at every economic stratum and in every kind of home, it tends to show up more often when money is tight. It’s stressful when the bills are overdue. Sometimes the stress leads to drinking, which means even more expenditure and, often, to violence.

Sometimes there is a complicated family dynamic in which, even if the woman is capable of bringing some income, the traditionally minded man refuses to allow it and tension springs from that. Sometimes the woman works and makes a higher salary, and the man has to reclaim superiority, in his own mind, by knocking her around.

Often, there just plain isn’t enough of anything, and tempers get short. Frustration grows, and to a man in a financial mess, it can seem like someone must be to blame, and that someone has to pay the price. One of the common variations of domestic violence as practiced by males is to refrain from hitting the kids, but the wife comes in for even more abuse, sacrificing herself to protect the kids. Even children who were never directly hurt suffer from long-term emotional scarring, as we are told by child development professionals. Witnessing violence of one parent against the other can be as traumatic as direct victimization.

The Ashcroft study is found at a government site of the National Institute of Justice, and can also be located via the Universal Living Wage page,  by clicking on the “What’s New” button and scrolling to November 22, 2007. This method is more useful, because a person can also become acquainted with the history of the thought and the public events behind the development of the Universal Living Wage.

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Source: “When the Bough Breaks: The Effects of Homelessness on Young Children,” ChildTrends.org, Feb. 2012
Source: “Obama Fails To Address Homeless Crisis While at Kitchen,” Tick Tock Sheptock, 09/15/11
Image (modified) by Valerie Everett, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Richer Rich, Poorer Poor, and PSC

Pepper Spray CopHouse the Homeless looked at the Associated Press journalist Hope Yen’s report on the recent Pew survey about attitudes concerning class in the United States. It turned out to be so interesting, there’s more to say about it.

Increasing poverty and “stubbornly high unemployment” are mentioned, societal conditions that are no longer fresh news to anyone. We have seen months of Occupy movement activities, including in many places the welcoming into the ranks of people experiencing homelessness.

The media have been full of photos of peaceful demonstrators being struck, stunned, sprayed, and otherwise brutalized. The impression such pictures give is that the members of America’s police forces are desperate to keep their jobs. The police seem to be so panicked by the thought of unemployment, they are willing to drop the charade of protecting the people, to become the tools of an elite class that does not even have their best interests in mind. Afraid of losing their security, of becoming broke and powerless, they are overtaken by a primal urge to attack the thing they fear becoming.

Oddly, what really struck a public nerve was not an instance of out-of-control violence, but the iconic photo of protesters sitting peacefully on the ground, being pepper-sprayed by a UC Davis cop. His perfectly casual attitude of “business as usual” is far more insulting and frightening than a display of temper. Going about his job with all the composure of a gardener watering flowers, Pepper Spray Cop (PSC) became an Internet meme.

Hundreds of adaptations were generated by creative people with graphics software, and Tumblr has a great collection. The PSC on this page has been separated from its original context and touched up, for the convenience of anyone inspired to do some PSC art.

Hope Yen quoted one of the survey analysts from the Pew Research Center, Richard Morin, who sees “a growing public awareness of underlying shifts in the distribution of wealth in American society.” In 2005, the top 10% of the population held 49% of the wealth. By 2009, the top 10% held 56% of the wealth. Meanwhile, almost half the people in America are in a condition of poverty, and no matter how generous and caring they might be, a great many Americans are simply not in a position to help those who are in the worst condition of all, the actually homeless and out on the streets or packed in shelters.

Yet, incredibly, Reason magazine’s Veronique de Rugy, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center, seems to think everything is okay because “income mobility is actually alive and well in the United States of America.” She interviewed a University of Chicago economist named Steven Kaplan, whose main point seems to be that, whoever the top 1% were in 1990, they were not the same individuals as the top 1% in 2000, and so on. Things get churned around, and there is plenty of “income mobility.”

In other words, some people get rich but don’t stay that way, and some people who were not wealthy become wealthy. It’s as if, because different people take turns in the poverty sector, that somehow makes everything okay.

Yen quotes Scott Winship, from the Brookings Institute, who talks about other measures of economic distribution. He says:

These accounts generally conflate disappointing growth in men’s earnings with growth in household income, which has been impressive. Growth in women’s earnings has also been impressive…

We’ve got scholars claiming that the average household has a higher income than at some point back in history. Big whoop! Even if the average family income is higher, it’s achieved at the cost of both parents working. Two adults have to work, if they can find work, to maintain a household economic standard that, in the past, could have been attained with only one adult working. This is not progress.

Yen asks the rhetorical question: “So why are people still sleeping outside in protest?” A better question is, why are so many people still sleeping outside because they don’t have anyplace else to sleep? If things are so economically rosy, why are thousands of Americans still homeless? Maybe because we don’t yet have the Universal Living Wage, which promises to end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers, and prevent economic homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum-wage workers.

But what about economic charts and graphs? Glad you asked. Here are some magnificent ones, gathered by various sources and presented by Business Insider. The charts have such titles as:

The gap between the top 1% and everyone else hasn’t been this bad since the Roaring Twenties.

Half of America has 2.5% of the wealth.

The last two decades were great… if you were a CEO or owner. Not if you were anyone else.

Despite the myth of social mobility, poor Americans have a SLIM CHANCE of rising to the upper middle class

In introducing the charts, Gus Lubin says,

The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Cliché, sure, but it’s also more true than at any time since the Gilded Age… The poor are getting poorer, wages are falling behind inflation, and social mobility is at an all-time low.

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Source: “Conflict between rich, poor strongest in 24 years,” Statesman.com, 01/11/12
Source: “For Richer and for Poorer,” Reason.com, 02/12
Source: “15 Mind-Blowing Facts About Wealth And Inequality In America,” Business Insider, 04/09/10
Image by DonkeyHotey, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Perceptions and Poverty

exploredAssociated Press reporter Hope Yen recently wrote about a telephone survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in December of 2011. More than 2,000 adults were questioned about class tensions, which researchers conclude are at their most intense in 25 years.

The article says:

About 3 in 10 Americans polled said there are ‘very strong’ conflicts between the rich and poor…. That is double the share who believed so in July 2009 and the largest proportion reporting that view in the 24 years the question has been asked in surveys.

The thing is, this survey is about perceptions, otherwise known as opinions, concerning the economic divide. It used to be mainly Democrats, African-Americans, and youth who were conscious of an upsetting disparity between the rich and the poor. But now, this survey reveals, even white folks are seeing the huge chasm between the richest and the poorest, and not liking what they see. Why? Because a lot of formerly middle-class Americans see themselves sliding closer and closer to the abyss.

It’s the kind of issue that people get emotional about, and form opinions about, but can we really understand what they think, when the framework of questions is so rigid? Thanks to this study of attitudes, we now know that:

… about 46 percent of Americans hold a disapproving view that rich people are wealthy because they were fortunate enough to be born into money or have the right connections. But almost as many people — 43 percent — say wealthy people are rich ‘mainly because of their own hard work, ambition or education.’

Why are the pollsters asking respondents to choose one or the other? In the real world, both are true. The correct answer is, some people have money because it was given to them, or they were granted unfair opportunities to acquire wealth. And, even worse, some are rolling in dough because they threw their souls overboard to make room for greed. As Balzac and many others have said, “Behind every great fortune there is a great crime.”

The rest of the correct answer is, a lot of people have become wealthy because of their ambition, drive, work ethic, integrity, talent, ingenuity, and a whole lot of other desirable qualities. There is a quite a number of different ways for a person to reach the high-income brackets.

But the more disturbing question is, why is there so much concern about asking Americans their opinion about things, whether it’s the motherhood fitness quotient of Britney Spears, or the qualifications of their fellow citizens to have big bank accounts? What people think doesn’t really count for much. If the majority of people think that the Earth is balanced on the back of a giant turtle, that doesn’t make it so, and no progress is made toward solving the planet’s problems.

There is another difficulty. This kind of either/or thinking encourages Americans to polarize: x% believe that the homeless deserve all the help a society is capable of giving, and y% believe that people experiencing homelessness are lazy specimens who deserve their bad fortune and that they have brought it on themselves.

Well, guess what? In the real world, both are true, and many other things, too. Many of the people experiencing homelessness are disabled, either mentally or physically. There just isn’t any kind of work they can do — especially when unemployment is so high, with hordes of massively overqualified workers available for even the most menial jobs.

And many, of course, are children. Surely, nobody expects them to go out and get jobs. Their lives are difficult enough, just trying to keep up in school. That’s their job. Keep the kids in mind when learning about the Universal Living Wage, which has the potential to end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers and prevent economic homelessness for all 10.1 million minimum-wage workers. Including the ones with kids.

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Source: “Conflict between rich, poor strongest in 24 years,” Statesman.com, 01/11/12
Image by eflon (Alex), used under its Creative Commons license.

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