The Vulnerability of Homeless Women

biker in the woodsOn June 15, the corpse of Valerie Louise Godoy was found in a wooded area of Austin, Texas. At the age of 34, she was killed by “significant blunt force trauma,” not to the head, which might at least be quick, but to the body, which sounds like a miserable way to go.

Richard R. Troxell and House the Homeless find that last year (2011) the number of homeless deaths in Austin was 137. Only a small proportion of these deaths were from violence, but there is a school of thought which holds that homelessness itself is an act of violence. Words to that effect are permanently engraved at the site of Austin’s Homeless Memorial, where every autumn, caring people gather to pay tribute to the lost lives.

Each one of these people had a story, as Richard reminded us when interviewed by TV journalist Alana Rocha for YNN Fox (News 8). The video coverage included several of his remarks, including:

The thing about Valerie is, she was somebody’s sister, somebody’s daughter.

And so were they all — sisters and daughters, brothers and sons. Various news reports make a point of mentioning Valerie Godoy’s ordinary, relatively normal upbringing. She took part in high school theatricals; moved to New York for a while to study the culinary arts. She could be the girl next door. And this is exactly the point. People experiencing homelessness are not members of some alien species, separate from humanity. Most of them had ordinary, relatively normal lives. Unfortunately, these days, being a normal, ordinary American means being about one paycheck away from disaster.

Valerie Godoy was perhaps unusual in being homeless in the town where she grew up. It may seem strange that someone with local family should be living on the streets, but there are many reasons for adults to not live with their parents. Sometimes, relatives are unwilling to deal with the consequences of living with an addict who refuses treatment. There are compelling reasons why even family members with the biggest hearts in the world, might be unable to offer someone housing.

In fact, the government itself makes it difficult for people to help their homeless relatives and friends. If they receive Section 8 housing assistance, only the people originally authorized are allowed to live in a place. Did Granny’s apartment building burn down and she needs somewhere to stay? Too bad. A family might be willing to take in a stray person — but weighed against the risk of losing their own housing and finding themselves out on the street, they just don’t dare.

Valerie Godoy’s body was found in Duncan Park, aka the Ninth Street BMX trail, which accommodates offroad bicycle racing over difficult and challenging terrain. A website for BMX enthusiasts mentioned the crime, and a very large number of respondents left comments ranging from cavalier and flippant to seriously, disturbingly ugly. Their main concern seems to be that the park will be perceived as a menace to public safety and bulldozed so it can no longer be used for their particular brand of recreation.

Although the park is said to not be maintained by the city, Godoy’s body was found by a parks officer. KXAN reporter David Scott mentioned that the park is frequented by the homeless, “in part because a food truck stops there with hot meals.” Scott also called the murder a “bizarre” case, though he did not explain what was particularly bizarre about it. A police department spokesperson, Cpl. Anthony Hipolito, told YNN News:

It’s a pretty populated area. They run people out of here all the time…

The impression is given that, while the food truck may stop at the park, the authorities are not particularly hospitable to the people experiencing homelessness who go there to eat. Another member of the police force told a reporter it seemed like Godoy was not familiar with the area. The police may have gotten their information from the same person who commented at a website called LiarCatchers, stating that one or two days before the murder, he had overheard the victim asking someone how to get to Duncan Park.

According to one news report, Valerie Godoy was sighted shortly before her death sitting on a curb with another person who had not been seen around the park before. Was the killer a stranger to her? There is a reason for asking this question. According to a website that publishes “mug shots,” the victim was arrested for public intoxication on May 25. In the official photograph her face is cut and bruised [see video]. The picture used by other news outlets, after her death, is a digitally cleaned-up version of that photo, with the contusions and laceration removed. Who put them there? Who roughed up Valerie Godoy three weeks before she was brutally murdered?

According to a helpful website, Texas is second only to California in the number of women’s shelters encompassed by its borders. Texas has 195, nine of them in Austin. At first blush, that sounds great. When you break it down, the situation is more complicated and less rosy. It’s not clear which institutions are actually places with beds, and which are referral agencies. Two of the listings specifically mention domestic violence, and although women experiencing homelessness are often subject to violence from partners, the specialized nature of some establishments can make it hard to gain admission. One listing is not a shelter but a hotline. And so it goes.

Richard says:

Single women and single women with children continue to be the fastest growing segment of homelessness, not only in Austin but also in the nation. Women currently get turned away every day.

Obviously, the supply of help is not matching up with the need. Consequently Richard, House the Homeless, and all concerned friends are calling for the creation of the Valerie Godoy Women’s Shelter. The first step is to bring this matter to the attention of Austin’s city leaders by way of a petition, which can be found on this page. Please click over and sign!


Source: “Woman’s murder exposes Austin’s most vulnerable,” YNN.com, 06/20/12
Source: “Police call for help in murder case,” KXAN.com, 06/16/12
Source: “Police investigate suspicious death in Downtown Austin,” YNN.com, 06/15/12
Source: “Austin, Texas,” WomensShelters.org
Image by maczter, used under its Creative Commons license.


Jim Crow Rides Again

Multiple PadlockHere’s the history and definition of “Jim Crow,” as presented by a website called Tennessee 4 me:

After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Civil Rights Act of 1875, laws were passed that separated blacks from whites. These were known as ‘Jim Crow’ laws. Supposedly the laws were named after a dance tune, ‘Jump Jim Crow’ that ridiculed African Americans. Signs went up in front of water fountains, restrooms, and other public places saying ‘Whites Only.’

Most of an entire generation, maybe a couple of generations, of Americans would not know the meaning of “Jim Crow” if the question were asked on a TV quiz show. The concept was said to be dead and buried. But today, risen like a zombie from a shallow grave, the spirit of Jim Crow stalks the land, virulent as ever. In fact, that spirit has developed a whole new side to its malevolent personality.

Conversely, there is the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which is resurrected by Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow. Such is the belief of Cornel West, who wrote the book’s foreword. West also perceives a “democratic awakening focused on the poor and vulnerable in American society.”

Alexander’s work demonstrates that the country’s racial caste system has not been abolished, but only redesigned. Alexander concentrates on one major aspect of that indictment, the cycling of racial minorities from joblessness to prison to homelessness and loss of civil rights. West says:

Her subtle analysis shifts our attention from the racial symbol of America’s achievement to the actual substance of America’s shame: the massive use of state power to incarcerate hundreds of thousands of precious poor, black, male (and, increasingly, female) young people in the name of a bogus ‘War on Drugs.’

In fact, the very discourse of colorblindness — created by neoconservatives and neoliberals in order to trivialize and disguise the depths of black suffering in the 1980s and ’90s — has left America blind to the New Jim Crow.

The massive disproportion apparent in the prison population is by no means the sum of the problem. Additionally, America has not quite realized that Jim Crow is now colorblind, too.

“Homeless is the new black.” It’s a multilayered pun, first from the fashion industry, where the “little black dress” is acknowledged as an outfit suitable anywhere, and black is the color you can’t go wrong with. But, either seriously or in jest, someone is always coming up with a line like, “Fuchsia is the new black,” meaning that it will replace that color as the fashion industry standard.

Then, there’s black in the racial sense. The way it used to be, in many parts of America, people who were then described as Negro or colored were considered non-persons, and had an almost exclusive monopoly on destitution. Nowadays, anybody can join the hordes of the shunned. Having no place to live is an equal-opportunity experience. Is this what the heroes who struggled for racial equality had in mind? Did the civil rights martyrs suffer and die so that homeless could become the new black?

Now, rather separate restrooms, or even whites-only restrooms, cities tend to have no restrooms for anybody. It’s impossible to keep homeless people out of public toilets, so the answer comes in a blinding flash of darkness — no toilets at all! This line of twisted reasoning could be called “throwing out the baby with the bathwater” or “cutting off your nose to spite your face.”

According to Drew Harwell, the way they do it in Clearwater, Florida, is to weld the doors of the public restrooms shut. And remove any stray hose or water spigot. After all, if people experiencing homelessness can be prevented from drinking, they won’t need to use a bathroom anyway, right? Oh, and make sure all the electricity is locked up tight. Harwell says:

Last month city employees took pictures of three men they saw charging cellphones at Station Square Park. Officials are also keeping a spreadsheet tracking homeless sightings and residents’ complaints… Slashing urban amenities is the city’s latest step in making it tougher to live on the street. The city’s homelessness consultant, Robert Marbut, said street survival guides and ‘renegade’ food giveaways only served to discourage the homeless from seeking real help.

This spate of bureaucratese is translated by Ann Sattley of Technically, That’s Illegal:

We cannot tolerate people living on the streets. It bothers some of our taxpayers, and they are the ones responsible for paying our salaries. We want to make them go somewhere else, so we’ll cut anything that helps them in any way. When people get upset, we’ll give them one stupid example of an alternative to keep them quiet. We’ll encourage them to go into job training, and ignore the fact that they need food and water before they can even consider getting a job.

Imagine: homeless people charging their cell phones, to communicate with the world, and maybe find work or a place to live. What a heinous crime! How dare they! The party line is that extreme “tough love” measures will “curb homelessness.” Really? Maybe the only thing curbed is the ability of homeless people to find a toilet. Or anyone else either, such as housed kids who play in parks, and the parents who accompany them. And retired folks, whose own personal plumbing doesn’t work too well. But who cares about them, as long as the street people are denied access.

Could life be any more grim? Yes. Harwell mentions a publicity campaign that was meant to talk “enablers” out of making donations to the Catholic soup kitchen — but the public pushed back against such a cruel idea. Incidentally, the homelessness consultant’s characterization of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (founded in 1833 and serving in 132 countries) as a “renegade” organization, is disturbing to say the least.


Source: “Jim Crow Laws,” tn4me.org
Source: “The New Jim Crow – Foreword by Cornel West,” NewJimCrow.com
Source: “Clearwater officials crack down on public amenities used by homeless,” Tampa Bay Times, 06/14/12
Source: “Tough Love for the Homeless,” Technically, That’s Illegal, 06/14/12
Image by mikebaird (Mike Baird), used under its Creative Commons license.


Breathing While Homeless — More Illegal Than Ever

Homeless Around the FireWhen a city passes a No Sit/No Lie ordinance, the purpose is not just to forbid sleeping outdoors, but to criminalize existence in any state of consciousness whatsoever. Officially, there is no offense called Breathing While Homeless, but it exists de facto, and some cities just get worse and worse.

In Looking Up at the Bottom Line, we learn that:

… [I]n 1996, the Houston, Texas, Living Wage effort to raise the minimum wage to $6.50 per hour was stopped cold in the last week of the campaign. Moneyed interests poured over 1 million dollars into creating misinformation and then handily defeated the initiative.

Houston has had a No Sit/No Lie ordinance for quite some time, and earlier this year, there was ferocious public debate over the rules that, as some phrase it, “criminalize charity” by forbidding citizens from feeding the homeless. A certain amount of compromise modified the originally proposed law, which had aspired to be much stricter. Chris Mora writes:

The version passed Wednesday reduced the maximum penalty to $500, made registration voluntary and lifted the food prep requirements. The property restriction does not apply to the feeding of five or fewer people.

In Sarasota, Florida, authorities carted away the benches from the city’s Five Points Park nearly a year ago, and recently voted not to put them back. J. David McSwane writes:

Removal of the benches was prompted by complaints from downtown condo owners who claim that large numbers of homeless people in the park are hurting their property values.

In 2006, Los Angeles got going on its Safer City Initiative, which was supposed to target not only drug dealers in the central urban area, but criminals who prey on street people. In other words, the new toughness was touted as protecting the homeless, as well as the housed.

Dana Goodyear reported on the results, which included a lot of arrests for “minor infractions that would have gone unnoticed in any other part of the city.” Goodyear went on to say:

In an analysis of the first year of the program, Gary Blasi, a UCLA law professor, noted that there had been, on average, a thousand citations a month, most of them for pedestrian violations, such as walking against the signal. Often the violators were unable to pay the tickets; warrants were issued for their arrest, and they were jailed.

Overly concerned citizens think that, when the urban space includes places to sit, it promotes drug sales. That rationale is lamer than a homeless person on crutches. News flash: An awful lot of illegal drug sales take place in houses, restaurants, bars, parking lots, college dorms, churches, and, yes, even condominiums. Once all those scenes of crime have been abolished, then let’s talk about forbidding people to sit in an urban area.

Civic authorities are suspicious of people experiencing homelessness, and that will never change. But if the homeless bear watching closely, doesn’t it counter the interests of the authorities themselves to chase them into hiding? Since street people are assumed to be guilty of something, shouldn’t the police favor a city plan that would encourage them to remain in plain sight for long periods of time — rather than, for instance, skulking in the shadows, doing who-knows-what?

From a law-enforcement angle, it does make a certain amount of sense. Why not have public space for people to sit around in? Any city that can tolerate football mobs or the occasional riot could certainly find a way to allow a modicum of space for people who don’t own or rent any space of their own.

A No Sit/No Lie ordinance (or Sit/Lie ordinance which, paradoxically, has the same meaning) wastes court and police time, is neither humane nor cost-effective, and just plain doesn’t work. Everybody’s got to be someplace, and they can’t always be standing up. Keeping people on their feet is a nasty habit of torturers the world over. Even a healthy person can only endure a limited amount of it.

A lot of people are experiencing homelessness because they can’t work, and they can’t work because they’re disabled. Resistance to a no sit/no lie ordinance in any city is about the needs of disabled people and the occasional needs of just about everybody. You never know when you’ll need a place to sit down, to take a splinter from a child’s foot. Or because the tubing of your portable oxygen tank got tangled up and has to be sorted out. Did your therapist ever suggest pausing to smell the roses? How can you, when there’s no place to linger?

Spaces in cities should not be planned just for the postcard views. They need to meet the people’s needs. You can buy ant farms or palaces for pet cats that are designed better than some cities. No Sit/No Lie ordinances are described as “quality of life” ordinances, which is a prime example of twisted thinking. Quality of whose life? People experiencing homelessness have lives too, and the quality of their lives is also important, especially if they’re sick or disabled.

In the years from 2005 to 2011, San Francisco issued 39,714 “quality of life” citations, which were recently remarked upon by T. J. Johnston of SF Public Press:

Of the total number of citations, alcohol-related offenses account for the majority, but sleeping in parks and trespassing are also among the most frequent infractions cited. Possession of an open container consistently led among all other violations with 12,250 citations issued. Overnight sleeping in a park yielded 3,512 write-ups. Running neck and neck for third place are two similar infractions for trespassing: Obstruction of a street or sidewalk at certain times resulted in 2,254, and trespassing, 2,222.

People can’t pay fines, so they are thrown in jail, and then having a criminal record prevents them from getting into public housing, followed by further Breathing While Homeless offenses, and so on ad infinitum. If there is a problem with people sitting on sidewalks and blocking the way, put benches there. Or build wider sidewalks.

Better yet, address the basic problems of a society that breeds such a problem. Who is outsourcing jobs? Who is foreclosing mortgages? Who is killing the bees and making food prices go up? If people sitting on the sidewalk are the problem, let’s take out our anger not on them, but on the appropriate causes of that problem.


Source: “Drastically scaled-back homeless feeding ordinance OK’d,” Chron.com, 04/04/12
Source: “Park benches not returning to Five Points Park,” Herald-Tribune.com, 04/02/12
Source: “Dana Goodyear, Letter from Los Angeles,” The New Yorker, May 5, 2008, p. 28
Source: “Thousands of tickets handed out to homeless,” SF Public Press, 06/04/12
Image by Alex E. Proimos, used under its Creative Commons license.


Breathing While Homeless Still a Crime

Brer Rabbit's HomeHouse the Homeless would prefer to highlight successful programs, and honor the individuals and organizations that do so much to help people experiencing homelessness in America. But some things can’t be ignored, including the extralegal invention of many new “crimes” such as DWB, which can mean Driving While Black or Driving While Brown, but, either way, it means trouble. This example of dark humor became a meme adaptable to many situations, like the ever-growing crime of Breathing While Homeless.

Racial profiling assumes guilt based on skin color, and economic profiling assumes guilt based on money. While plenty of guilt can be assigned to the wealthy, being blamed by their economic inferiors does not much wound them.

On the other hand, when guilt is presumptively and automatically assigned to the poor, it can do them an enormous amount of harm. Many housed citizens find it difficult to care about any of this. However, they can be roused to care a lot about what happens to their tax dollars.

In other words, while compassion arguments may or may not work, financial arguments are often convincing. Here’s the financial argument against criminalizing homelessness: It can’t possibly be cost-effective. When people have little or no money, and no way of getting more, there can’t be any profit in fining them for open alcohol containers, obstruction, trespassing, camping, brawling, public urination, disorderly conduct, and minor theft — and then arresting them again for technical violations like drinking while out on bond. And then tossing them in jail for not paying the fines.

Barbara Ehrenreich, who consistently knits facts into compelling prose, reminds us that at least one-third of the states make it possible for someone to be locked up as a debtor. She sketches an astonishing picture:

If a creditor like a landlord or credit card company has a court summons issued for you and you fail to show up on your appointed court date, a warrant will be issued for your arrest. And it is easy enough to miss a court summons, which may have been delivered to the wrong address or, in the case of some bottom-feeding bill collectors, simply tossed in the garbage — a practice so common that the industry even has a term for it: ‘sewer service.’

Ehrenreich adds that in most states, anyone who owes child support gets their driving license confiscated, and, in Michigan, the privilege to drive can even be revoked for unpaid parking tickets. Courts impose ridiculous fees that have no hope of ever being collected, but contribute to the judge’s “tough on crime” reputation.

In a lot of jurisdictions across the country, people who owe fines can arrange for a scheduled payment plan — if they’re willing to pay as much as an extra $300 for the favor. Under rules like these, anyone who isn’t homeless already, soon could be.

For people experiencing homelessness, it is so easy to get into legal trouble. Remember this, from last summer? Jonathan Turley wrote:

Now, in Maine, Shaun Fawster, 23, a homeless man has been arrested because a Bangor police officer spotted him using an outside outlet to charge his phones. Fawster was charged last weekend with theft of services… Since the costs of the charge was pennies, it is hard to see how this arrest served justice.

This picture is through a wider lens, encompassing the entire picturesque town of Boulder, Colorado, where, depending on circumstances and variables, an arrest can cost the government between $250 and $1,000. That’s just to put the person into jail, and doesn’t even begin to count the incarceration itself.

Pierrette J. Shields writes about “frequent fliers,” such as the alcoholic homeless woman who was booked into the county jail 112 times in the last 10 years. Just to arrest her has cost at least $8,000.

Homeless people who are jailed are often mentally disabled, or struggling with alcoholism or addiction, or all of the above. A simple, uncomplicated prisoner costs the taxpayers $67 a day, but the ones with problems cost $90 a day to maintain. Cmdr. Bruce Haas is quoted as saying:

In many ways (arrests are) probably their saving grace because when they come to the jail they get medical care and proper diet.

In fact, when it comes to homelessness, jail might not serve as much of a disincentive. Sometimes, it’s like throwing Brer Rabbit into the briar patch, the place where he was most comfortable and happy.

Pastor Steve Kimes, who works with people experiencing homelessness in Oregon, writes:

Among the chronic homeless, jail is seen as a ‘vacation’. Sure, it limits your freedom. But it also gives you three meals a day, which is more than you’d often eat on the street. You don’t have to walk as much. You are less likely to be threatened by guards than you are by the community or the police outside. You have greater access to a toilet in jail. You have a much greater opportunity for sleep without being harassed… Frankly, in some communities, jail is much to be preferred.

And every now and then you run across an item like this one, from CBS News, about a man in Georgia who first threatened to kill the President, but couldn’t get anyone to lock him up for that:

Lance Brown was hungry and homeless, so he decided to get thrown in jail by hurling a brick through a glass door at the Columbus courthouse building.

Do we need more evidence that our society is sick? Is this the best we can do? America announces to the world a remarkable accomplishment — we have discovered how to end homelessness.  Simply throw everybody in jail!


Source: “The poor: America’s piggy bank,” Salon.com, 05/17/12
Source: “Bangor Police Arrest Homeless Man For Charging Cellphone,” JonathanTurley.org, 06/30/11
Source: “Repeat, low-level offenders costly for Boulder County Jail,Longmont Times-Call, 04/16/12
Source: “Jail or Homelessness?,” PastoralBlog.blogspot.com, 06/28/11
Source: “Hungry homeless man gets arrested intentionally,” CBSNews.com, 05/01/12
Image by matt44053 (Matt Dempsey), used under its Creative Commons license.


Still Kicking Them When They’re Down

human needsWe have often wondered if some kind of guidebook is being passed around, with a title like Harass the Homeless. The subtitle would be, “Kick ‘Em When They’re Down.” There is no shortage of examples.

Barbara Ehrenreich, who has written extensively on poverty-related issues, has founded a project to track some of the kicks. The Economic Hardship Reporting Project supports innovative investigative journalism on poverty and economic hardship.

Business and government alike have discovered that it’s easier and less detectable to take $1 each from 1,000 poor people than it is to take $1,000 from a solvent person.

The only sector of the economic conspiracy against the poor that has had some light shed into its dark corners is the loan industry, which includes both major big-name companies and strip-mall payday loan outfits. Currently, they can get away with charging interest that sometimes adds up to 600% per year. In regard to this and numerous other disgraceful practices, Ehrenreich says:

Before we can ‘do something’ for the poor, there are some things we need to stop doing to them.

For examples of what ought to stop or be stopped, see “How scammers keep targeting Michigan’s homeless” by Ted Roelofs, who gives just a few instances in just one American city.

A day laborer puts in a full shift cleaning and renovating an apartment, for an employer who disappears without paying. A man helps paint a house and ends up with only one-fourth of the pay that was promised. Con artists convince homeless people to cash forged checks, or use their personal information to fraudulently get funds meant for students. A meth cook recruits the homeless to go into drugstores and buy ingredients for his illegal enterprise.

Citing Kim Bobo, who wrote Wage Theft in America, the author estimated that through devious practices, employers manage to extract at least $100 billion each year from employees who are helpless to do anything about this, even if they somehow find out about it. Keep that number in mind, it comes up in the next paragraph, as Ehrenreich stacks up some economic facts:

The government distributes about $55 billion a year, for example, through the largest single cash-transfer program for the poor, the Earned Income Tax Credit; at the same time, employers are siphoning off twice that amount, if not more, through wage theft.

Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, for example, our sole remaining nationwide welfare program, gets only $26 billion a year in state and federal funds. The impression is left of a public sector that’s gone totally schizoid: on the one hand, offering safety-net programs for the poor; on the other, enabling large-scale private sector theft from the very people it is supposedly trying to help.

Many jurisdictions charge defendants for their court costs, and for room and board in the jail. We know a woman whose children were removed from her custody for questionable reasons, and put into foster care. That turned out badly for the kids — one went to juvenile incarceration and the other to some kind of state rehab program. And now the state is sending bills to the biological mother for both.

Ehrenreich mentions a similar mess:

The poster case for government persecution of the down-and-out would have to be Edwina Nowlin, a homeless Michigan woman who was jailed in 2009 for failing to pay $104 a month to cover the room-and-board charges for her 16-year-old son’s incarceration. When she received a back paycheck, she thought it would allow her to pay for her son’s jail stay. Instead, it was confiscated and applied to the cost of her own incarceration.

A homeless person lucky enough to have a vehicle and unlucky enough to be stopped for a traffic infraction could find fines piling on pretty quick, like $214 for failing to notify the DMV of an address change within 10 days. Or $436 for not having the right kind of child seat, or $796 for failing to provide evidence of insurance. Next thing you know, this person doesn’t even have a car.

Governments at every level have discovered the awesome power of fines, and the only thing that can be said for that is, morally it’s a step above stopping citizens at random and taking their cash. But Ehrenreich points out the absurdity: “80%-90% of criminal offenses are committed by people who are officially indigent.” This certainly includes people experiencing homelessness. The law creates homelessness every day.


Source: “The poor: America’s piggy bank,” Salon.com, 05/17/12
Source: “How scammers keep targeting Michigan’s homeless,” MLive.com, 10/12/11
Image by jramspott (John Ramspott), used under its Creative Commons license.


Income Inequality and Low-Paying Jobs

chartMany people have seen the chart shown here, which “went viral” not long ago. Now the site where it appears carries an afternote from Lisa Wade, who says:

Since posting this, I’ve discovered that the numbers do not accurately reflect the ratio of CEO vs. worker pay. I apologize for not vetting this more carefully.

What happened was, a website called PolitiFact discovered that the chart originated with three graduate students in 2005 who forgot to list sources for their data, which by now would be more than 10 years old anyway. Fair enough.

It appears that no official body keeps track of the comparative CEO/worker rates of compensation internationally, so that’s a dead end. But even without solid verification, PolitiFact admits:

We don’t doubt the chart’s underlying point that the ratio of CEO pay to worker pay is high in the United States, and is likely higher in our free-wheeling economy than it is in the historically more egalitarian nations of Europe.

They also warn that even in the best case, statistics can only be approximated, because of differences in surveying methods and subjective decisions like what counts as compensation. But the story really gets interesting when PolitiFact seeks out current numbers regarding the income inequality between the CEO of an American company and the average worker in that company.

Here is what they found:

The most recent chart from the Economic Policy Institute shows a ratio of 185 to 1 for 2009. According to the group’s calculations, the peak since the mid 1960s was almost 299 to 1… Meanwhile, the most recent ratio from the Institute for Policy Studies is also smaller — for 2010, it was 325 to 1. In previous years the ratio on two occasions has exceeded 475 to 1 — to be specific, 516 to 1 in 1999 and 525 to 1 in 2000.

So they imply that we should calm down about this income inequality thing, because it was worse in 2000. Sure, the pay differential was even more outrageous than the number shown on the chart, but this information “would be of questionable use to policy debates today.”

Who are they kidding? We’re supposed to shun this chart because it’s wrong — but it’s wrong in the wrong direction! When the big boss makes 525 times as much as the worker, that’s worse than the big boss making 475 times as much as the worker!

Maybe it’s true that the most conservative number is closest to being right. Maybe the average American CEO only makes 185 times as much as the worker, a number that PolitiFact says was “not generated by groups that might have an ideological interest in downplaying the gaps between rich and poor.” So we’re supposed to chill out and not be concerned about the fact that for every dollar a worker makes, the big boss makes $185 of them.

Eileen Appelbaum notes that there is a difference between the official national unemployment level of 12.7 million and the actual number of unemployed, which is 22.8 million, if you count people who have given up searching for work, and the part-time employed who would be working full-time if they could. She is suspicious of employers who claim to “have good jobs but can’t find workers with the right skills to fill them.” If such an urgent imbalance exists between supply and demand, she wonders, then why isn’t this reflected by a rise in pay for these jobs?

Appelbaum gives a summary of recent research about the aftermath of an economic recession. High-paying and low-paying jobs come back, but, she adds:

A new study attributes the jobless recoveries following recent recessions to such job polarization. The study’s authors argue that jobs in the middle of the skill and income distribution disappear during recessions and fail to come back during recoveries.

However, in some areas of the low-skill-and-income-sector, the job outlook is perking up. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, personal care and home health aides are the fastest growing categories of workers being sought.

Last week, House the Homeless discussed the “silver tsunami,” the demographic bulge of seniors and pre-seniors who will soon require the attention of many thousands of personal care aides and home health aides. They are honorable professions, but the pay scale is not tempting.

Since the financial reward is paltry, we had better hope that a whole lot of young people feel motivated to enter the caregiver business through their own natural good-heartedness. Where is all this good-heartedness going to come from? We’re raising a nation of kids whose families are fractured by homelessness, whose human ties are fragile and constantly broken by the necessity to move yet again.

These disadvantaged kids are proceeding to grow up into the very workforce that will be spoonfeeding oatmeal to the Baby Boom generation a few years from now. We’d better hope they learn about the milk of human kindness somewhere along the way.


Source: “Cross-National Comparison of Ratio of CEO to Worker Pay,” The Society Pages, 05/03/12
Source: “Viral Facebook post on CEO-worker pay ratio has obscure past,” PolitiFact, 10/10/11
Source: “Low-Wage Jobs to Blame for Slow Economic Recovery,” NationofChange, 04/10/12
Image of “Cross-National Comparison of Ratio of CEO to Worker Pay” is used under Fair Use: Reporting.


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.


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.


“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.

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.


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!


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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