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.



Affording to Live

cost of rent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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.


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.


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.


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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