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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.

Reactions?

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.

Reactions?

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.

Reactions?

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.

Reactions?

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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Looking Back at 2011

Providence HomelessAmongst the year’s news research, one of the more interesting comments from the public to be discovered came from “pdquick,” who worked in the streets for years as a paramedic, and later as a doctor in a program for people experiencing homelessness. This person was reacting to a video clip about San Francisco‘s sit-lie ordinance, and to unkind remarks by other commentators:

If people could overcome addictions with a snap of the fingers, they wouldn’t be addictions, they would just be bad habits… You have no idea the barriers to housing — internal and external — that people face. We have a whole set of policies in place, from draconian drug laws, to public housing policies that essentially make evictees permanently homeless, that stand in the way. Then we put people into buildings where drug dealers knock on the doors all night trying to get you to buy drugs. These are collections of people whose mental illnesses often don’t mesh with each other at all. Then when they ‘fail’ in housing, we send them back to the streets with less stability and less chance at housing than they had before.

The organization Faith Advocates for Jobs, in the winter issue of its newsletter, named Looking Up at the Bottom Line as a “Books of Note” recommendation. This is, of course, the book we see over on the right-hand side of the page, written by Richard R. Troxell, and it is the place to find out how the Universal Living Wage can help you, me, and everybody.

For The Libertarian Alliance (a think tank headquartered in Britain), Kevin Carson wrote a lengthy and well-considered piece on Looking Up at the Bottom Line.

In July, when Austin’s city government announced the sale of a dozen subsidized homes, KUT News reporter Nathan Bernier interviewed Richard. The good news is, the construction of these houses was part of an ongoing program which had already put 30 families into houses. The bad news is, despite the city’s administering nearly 2,000 low-income units, and managing the Section 8 voucher program which affects 5,000 units, both programs have waiting lists numbering in the hundreds of applicants. Richard says,

Most of our ‘affordable housing’ programs have nothing to do with homelessness… We’re talking about people who don’t have anything, and don’t qualify for anything.

Instead, he thinks better results could be obtained by creating a living-wage jobs program that would help homeless people work their way off the street. While roughly half of the people experiencing homelessness in Austin (and the nation) are so disabled they cannot work, the other half are capable of working and indeed want to work. Meanwhile, House the Homeless has been kept extremely busy dealing with the citywide restructuring of funding for all social services that caused the Salvation Army, the Children’s Shelter, and Legal Aid to lose city funding.

John Joel Roberts, of PovertyInsights.org, cited Richard’s book in The Huffington Post article, relating its message to his own locale of Los Angeles:

… [T]he average rent for a one-bedroom apartment, as of May 2011, is $1,315 per month. Many housing experts believe that in order for a person to be able to pay for housed-living (such as food, utilities, transportation and clothing), a person should not pay more than one-third of his monthly income toward rent. That means in Los Angeles, the homeless man standing near the freeway needs to earn $22.76 per hour to afford the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment… Minimum wage in Los Angeles, however, is only $8 per hour. A person earning this rate could barely pay his rent, and would have nothing for food, utilities or anything else. In other words, he would be sitting in an empty apartment, darkened because of no electricity, and hungry because of not enough income to buy food.

If it makes sense to you that a person working 40 hours a week should be able to afford a roof over his or her head other than a bridge, then the Universal Living Wage makes sense too. Every member of Congress and every state Governor have been sent a copy of Looking Up at the Bottom Line. So has the President. Why not write or email them? Tell them that Troxell’s idea will stabilize small businesses, stimulate the housing industry and the economy generally, end economic homelessness for over one million minimum-wage workers, and prevent it for all 10.1 minimum-wage workers, including our returning veterans.

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless React to Sit/Lie,” MissionLocal.org, 11/11/10
Source: “Richard R. Troxell. Looking Up at the Bottom Line: The Struggle for the Living Wage,” The Libertarian Alliance: Blog, 04/27/11
Source: “City Selling 12 Subsidized Homes For $110,000 Each,” KUT News, 07/05/11
Source: “Unlivable Wages Mean Unlivable Conditions,” The Huffington Post, 06/09/11
Image by jdn (Jack Newton), used under its Creative Commons license.

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Occupy Homelessness

Invisible HomelessBarbara Ehrenreich published a very significant book called Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. More recently, she pointed out the similarities between the Occupy political protesters and people experiencing homelessness, who both engage in urban camping:

Homeless people confront the same issues every day: how to scrape together meals, keep warm at night by covering themselves with cardboard or tarps, and relieve themselves without committing a crime.

Whoever defined the three basic needs of humans as food, clothing, and shelter, could have been more accurate. For starters, clothing and shelter are both subsets of the same class, coverings to protect the body from the elements. Clothing and shelter have more similarities than differences. There are places where people get along pretty much without clothing, and even places where they can survive without shelter. There are situations where either clothing or shelter will do. So, neither of them can be called an absolute necessity at all times and places.

But nobody survives without going to the bathroom (or the vacant lot or alleyway, if necessary.) It would be much more in alignment with reality to define the three basic needs as food, body covering, and elimination.

Ehrenreich goes on to say:

As the Occupy Wall Streeters are beginning to discover, and homeless people have known all along, many ordinary and biologically necessary activities are illegal when performed in American streets — not just urinating but sitting, lying down and sleeping.

This is what Richard R. Troxell says when inviting members of the various Occupy groups nationwide to consider the Homeless Protected Class Resolution and the Universal Living Wage as issues to coalesce around. Excerpts follow:

We certainly know the pain of homelessness here in Austin. As hard as we are working to end homelessness by getting people mental health care and safe, decent, affordable housing, there are still thousands of folks right here in the Austin area that are sleeping in their cars and living on our streets and in our woods.

While they are experiencing the trauma of losing their homes and being separated from their loved ones, they are getting ticketed, abused, their cars and belongings stolen and arrested… We fixed the No Sit No Lie ordinance… We can fix this as well.

Ehrenreich, in fact, specifically mentions Austin as exemplary, before summing up:

In Portland, Austin and Philadelphia, the Occupy Wall Street movement is taking up the cause of the homeless as its own, which of course it is. Homelessness is not a side issue unconnected to plutocracy and greed. It’s where we all could be headed — the 99%, or at least the 70%, of us, every debt-laden college grad, out-of-work schoolteacher and impoverished senior — unless this revolution succeeds.

There is, in some quarters, debate over whether the homeless qualify as bona fide Occupy protesters. The answer seems obvious: they are certainly not members of the elite, all-possessing 1%. An anonymous commentator asks readers to think deeply about the difference between the homeless and the Occupy protesters, reasoning that what’s good for one is good for the other:

I have entrepreneurial spirit and I’ve decided to start a homeless camp along the river in Harrisburg… I’m going to buy some $99 tents, then charge the homeless, say, ten bucks a night… When the police show up to displace the homeless, I as their spokesperson, will insist that this is merely a protest. And we have the right to occupy as long as we want, just like our bothers and sisters down the street… I do not understand how any city can roust homeless folks when the occupy crew get to do whatever they want. And heaven forbid we should trample on their rights.

This person meant to be sarcastic, but you know what? Heaven forbid we, as a society, should trample on the rights of either the protesters or the people experiencing homelessness.

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Source: “Tomgram: Barbara Ehrenreich, Homeless in America,” TomDispatch.com, 10/23/11
Source: “Treating the Homeless the Same As Protesters,” whptv.com, 1/18/11
Image of Invisible Homeless used under Fair Use: Reporting.

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Business, the Government, and Homelessness

Burning Man 2007 Semi TrucksThe relationship between homelessness and business is multi-faceted. Traditionally, the union and the factory owner in a company town had a certain kind of relationship, and the relationship between an apprentice and his boss, the craftsman, was something else.

In the past, employment often guaranteed a place to live, even if it meant sleeping on a floor. Today, when business and society cause homelessness, one of the results is even more underpayment. Any employer who can offer living quarters can get away with paying peanuts because the fear of homelessness is so pervasive.

Then, when the government gets into it, there is a whole new set of relationships, causes, and effects. Things are complicated because small businesses are different from big businesses. Today, giant corporations can influence the amount of homelessness in any city or state. Then, there are contract workers, independent professionals, and other kinds of workers.

The relationship between homelessness, business, and government shows up in different ways, both obvious and subtle. Obviously, underpaid or unemployed workers are at greater risk for losing their places to live. Some are the “economic homeless,” working full-time or even more, and still unable to afford housing.

The situation in the Antelope Valley is very interesting because it’s a microcosm that displays so many of the things that are wrong nationwide. Wrong how? Wrong in promoting homelessness. Across America, everybody is running around scratching for limited dollars to try and alleviate the ugly consequences of homelessness. This section of California is like a laboratory demonstration of the rapacious and coercive tactics that create homelessness.

Mars Melnicoff blew the lid off the situation in the LA Weekly with a piece called “L.A. County’s Private Property War,” with coverage so comprehensive, there is a major aspect of it we didn’t even mention yet. The thing is, an awful lot of truckers live in the area, independent operators who own their vehicles. Consulting DMV figures, Melnicoff estimates that in this small area, over a thousand people are directly supported by the 266 Class A drivers among its residents.

She interviewed Joe Rajkovacz of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association and learned that 96% of the trucking industry is made up of small business owners, with 20 or fewer trucks. One-truck owners account for about half of all the registered motor carriers in the country.

The journalist quotes Rajkovacz:

A person owning one truck is not going to own a terminal … They live in the high desert… There’s a reason they live in rural, downtrodden areas — because that’s all they can afford.

Exactly. And they are mightily angered by the ignorance of the Nuisance Abatement enforcers, who don’t have clue about the trucking industry or the slightest understanding of why the huge, expensive vehicles need to be closely protected from vandalism and theft. Because of ridiculous codes, truckers are forbidden from parking in many places on the land they own out in the middle of nowhere. LA County labels their spare parts, tools, machinery, and construction materials as trash, junk, and debris, and uses that as an excuse to kick them off their own land.

Representatives of the government show up with guns and treat taxpayers like criminals, with no respect for their needs as small business owners or even for their rights as Americans. And every dollar the truckers lose in defending themselves against these incursions is a dollar they can’t spend on something else, so the domino effect rolls on to hit other local businesses.

Seems like the bureaucrats would think twice before messing around with truckers who, in this commercial nation, are responsible for bringing all the products from where they are made or grown to where they are sold. But no. A local resident told Melnicoff that the county government is “almost immune to common sense,” which is readily believable when some of their actions are pondered.

A typical story is of a trucker who has spent his off-season with his sister for years, parking his rig on her land in the midst of the desert nothingness. Which is fine with the sister, but not at all okay with the Nuisance Abatement Teams. The harassment and legal actions appear likely to continue until all the truckers, who are the backbone of everything America holds dear, are forced to abandon their properties and go elsewhere — or maybe nowhere permanent, winding up as just more drifters experiencing homelessness.

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Source: “L.A. County’s Private Property War,” LA Weekly, 06/23/11
Image by Jesse Wagstaff, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Animals Exploited to Force People From Homes

A GoatIn “Creating Homelessness in the Antelope Valley,” we talked about how the residents of that part of Southern California are being systematically pushed out of their homes for some as-yet-unknown purpose. It’s not a conspiracy theory, it’s a conspiracy that has pretty much been successfully accomplished already.

Mars Melnicoff of the LA Weekly did wonderful reporting on the domestic terrorism practiced by Los Angeles County’s Nuisance Abatement Teams. (For a brief introduction, see Reason TV‘s 10-minute video, “Battle for the Desert: Citizens Fight for their Right to Live on Their Land.”) The object is to make these people homeless, and typical language for these complaints says the property is substandard, and a public nuisance. Property itself can be convicted of being injurious to health or offensive to the senses. The big sin is when it “obstructs the free use of neighboring property so as to interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life and property.”

A local couple had an old rowboat, destined to become a decorative planter. But the county came around saying a neighbor had registered a complaint about unsightly “debris.” The catch is, the Castanedas have no neighbors. Apparently, the government is wasting resources doing flyovers or beaming pictures from orbiting satellites, or some outrageous thing, to find a reason to make people tear down their homes.

Folks who repair machinery are made to get rid of inoperable cars and parts. It’s insane. People live in rough, inaccessible areas so they can do things like auto repair. That’s what the outback is for. It’s for people who like to “use it up, wear it out, make it do,” as the old saying goes; people who are into things like recycling. There is almost no way to maintain an attractive-looking storage area for objects meant to be recycled. The bins and containers made for the purpose are almost as ugly. But who cares, when the nearest neighbor is half a mile away? The county cares, very much.

One guy’s violation was having two seagoing containers on his property. It’s a very practical storage option, it’s recycling, it’s green… and it’s forbidden. A building at the end of a five-mile private road had to be moved because it wasn’t sufficiently “set back.” The officials make people do ridiculous, difficult, ruinously expensive things to comply, and then demand more and more, and end up throwing them out anyway.

We spoke before of how the authorities forced Kim Fahey and his extended family to leave Phonehenge West and destroy the home they built. Here is Fahey’s description (from a Facebook message) of how the predators descend:

The last time the County came out, just before they bulldozed the place, here’s who they arrived with… The D.A. and five armed bodyguards. Four sheriff N.A.T. Team guys with automatic weapons, three Fire Chiefs, Animal Control, Health and Safety, Regional Planning, Building and Safety… Nineteen in total. I say to them at my front gate, ‘You guys can’t come on my property without my attorney here!’ They walked right past me….

Fahey faces as much as five years in prison and was supposed to be sentenced in November, but the sentencing was put off again until February 10, 2012. Apparently, the reason for the delayed sentencing is that, once sentenced, he can file an appeal to put further demolition orders on hold. Meanwhile, the court can force demolition of other structures to continue. The main building on his property has already been destroyed, and there is a dispute with the demolition contractor who didn’t clean up as agreed, which adds more penalties.

California F.A.C.E.OFF. runs a lively blog full of spirit, whose description is,

A Grassroots Citizens’ Movement Dedicated to Restoring Property Rights by Exposing and Eliminating Abusive, Aggressive, Illegal and UnConstitutional Code Enforcement Practices…

Those practices are, of course, the very ones responsible for creating homelessness. California F.A.C.E.OFF. quotes one of the stories Fahey told about a neighbor on a recent radio show:

One morning a few months ago, he gets a knock at his door. He finds he’s being visited by a… ‘Nuisance Abatement Team’. The old man is informed by seven ‘officers’, each with bullet proof vests, fully-auto assault rifles and real attitudes, that he has to remove all offending trucks and equipment, or go to jail. The old man is then told he has to vacate the premises until he has complied with all of their requests. The old man, now homeless and scared to death, starts sleeping in one of his old trucks with his pets. It hits below thirty degrees. He makes a small fire to stay warm. His truck catches on fire and he burns to death with his pets.

There is even more to that particular ugly tale but you’ll have to go to the website to read it. House the Homeless also elicited more information about the perverse way in which the authorities use the residents’ animals as pawns in their quest to seize property.

A message from Fahey says,

It is so insidious what these County goons are doing, it’s almost beyond comprehension. In our situation, we placed all our animals at friends and family members, long ago, to thwart the N.A.T. Team goons.

Others? Not so lucky. A favorite tactic is to come out with twenty ‘Intimidators’ to run a family off. The first thing they do is have their animal control reps take possession of horses, dogs, goats, etc. ‘For health reasons’! They can say whatever they want.

Next, they red tag the ‘Unsafe home’, putting the people in the street. By the time you get into court, you’re already dead. Most trade their homes to get their animals back. End of story…

Naturally, we can’t leave the subject of homeless pets without recommending the 2012 House the Homeless Pet Calendar, which is a free download, with only the mildest, most subtle suggestion for a donation. And if you can’t donate, may you and your pets enjoy it anyway throughout the upcoming new year.

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Source: “L.A. County’s Private Property War,” LA Weekly, 06/23/11
Source: “The Unsolicited Opinion on Code Enforcement!,” californiafaceoffmovement.blogspot.com, 06/29/11
Image by Kevin Lawver, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Thanksgiving All Year Round

Yvonne Shields, community chef at Broadway Community

Thanksgiving greetings to all the volunteers and donors who provide holiday dinners for people experiencing homelessness. We also honor those who attend to the nutritional needs of the homeless throughout the year through a variety of programs.

Not long ago, Fox News carried an article written by Rabbi Abraham Cooper about activist Jay Goldinger:

For the last 805 Sundays, he and a small cadre of volunteers have stood on the frontline of Los Angeles’ forgotten jobless and homeless population and delivered change we can truly believe in. Goldinger’s initiative called ‘Food on Foot’ does not merely give out food and clothing to the down and out but has helped turn many of them into productive taxpayers.

The method is described as a tough-love approach. The author relates how Goldinger will give a new participant a mirror and say,

Take a good in the mirror. You are looking at the enemy; the only person holding you back from a bright future.

There’s nothing wrong with telling people that. It’s what plenty of sages have told us, from Gautama Buddha to Sigmund Freud to Werner Erhard. Of course, technically, it’s only true some of the time. There are other things that can hold a person back.

Richard R. Troxell enumerates some of those things:

However, it perpetuates the stereotype that people experiencing homelessness are drug addicts. Let’s just suppose that if it were true, it does not change the fact that after they go about looking into that mirror and ‘turning their lives around,’ they will be returned to a world that pays them ‘slave wages’ that are so little, it prevents their escape from poverty.

And what if we consider for just a moment that it may well have been those ‘slave wages’ that caused them to lose hope, and cause them to turn to drug use, and possibly drug sales as their only escape for their situation? And what is the criminal charge for the Federal Government that created the ‘slave wage’ standard that drove them to using drugs and selling drugs in the first place?

And what about the employer who surrendered his ethical standard to a non-living, non-feeling, non-thinking, non-human institution? What criminal charge is there for the employer who is a real-life human being who hides behind this ‘thing’ and takes a worker’s wage for less an amount that affords him a roof over his head… other than a bridge?

Where is the righteous indignation? How can we expect to change the way the world looks at this if we don’t promote it like a steady drum beat?

At any rate, the purpose of the “Food on Foot” program is to motivate the participants to take responsibility for their actions. Actually, that’s an excellent principle for all of us to follow, and many would approve the fact that the program has never taken any funding derived from taxes.

Cooper goes on to say,

Backsliding is never rewarded. And there is another key component. Jay demands of everyone — random acts of kindness — like sharing some food, guiding a blind person across the street, helping an elderly person with their shopping… These simple acts challenge people clinging to the lowest rung of society to validate their self-worth and to realize that victimhood isn’t a coat that protects you from the elements but a straitjacket that locks you in to a cycle of misery.

Obviously, this is not a program for everyone. But for those who apply and are accepted, the success rate is said to be 89%. If that impressive claim is accurate, it’s a program that needs to be replicated.

In Seattle, Washington, they have FareStart, a nonprofit organization that has been training at-risk kids to work in the food industry, not as counter help but as actual chefs. Thanks to FareStart and the network it inspired, Catalyst Kitchens, a lot of homeless lives have turned around since 1992.

Associated Press reporter Gene Johnson lists the three goals pursued by these entities:

… feeding hungry people, providing housing and other support to those on the margins of society, and giving people the skills they need to lift themselves out of poverty.

Johnson interviewed some of the participants who are trying out new ways of interacting with society, like being on time, and being sober on the job, or at any point during the day. Some have been through anger management therapy and other self-improvement programs, and it appears that the overwhelming majority of students flourish and go on to brighter futures.

He also interviewed a staff chef, Sam Clinton, who was once a successful and well-compensated professional, until he became a homeless addict. And this quotation from Clinton is one of the most profound things ever said:

If you want to be sober, you need to be with people who want to be sober.

Reactions?

Source: “Could LA’s Jay Goldinger Hold the Key to Defeating Homelessness?,” Fox News, 08/20/11
Source: “Seattle program teaches homeless to feed hungry,” The Washington Times, 09/04/11
Image by Vadim Lavrusik, used under its Creative Commons license.

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