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Economic Inequality and Homelessness

Urban Blight #3By now, everyone has heard of TED, the nonprofit foundation whose mission is to spread ideas. Originally, its speakers and audience were drawn from the realms of Technology, Entertainment, and Design. Now, TED draws from inspiration from every well:

Today, TED is best thought of as a global community. It’s a community welcoming people from every discipline and culture who seek a deeper understanding of the world.

TED’s yearly global conference in Edinburgh is one of the most significant events a person could hope to attend. The speakers whose “TED Talks” are offered for free online include “the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers,” who get to talk for no more than 18 minutes.

Richard Wilkinson’s speech only ran 16 minutes and 34 seconds, and he made a lot of good points in that time about how economic inequality harms societies. Does it make any sense at all that some of the wealthiest countries also have the greatest economic gaps between rich and poor?

Extensive research done by Wilkinson, who is emeritus professor of public health at the University of Nottingham, revealed an interesting corollary to his contention that more equal societies almost always fare better in a number of important ways. Some countries get along fine with redistribution of wealth, and some succeed because there is a smaller difference in the range of before-tax income. The thing is, he says:

[W]e conclude that it doesn’t much matter how you get your greater equality, as long as you get there somehow. We’ve got to constrain income, the bonus culture incomes at the top… [T]he take-home message though is that we can improve the real quality of human life by reducing the differences in incomes between us.

The studies were set up with carefully crafted parameters. The economic disparity between the rich and the poor was measured by taking the top 20% and the bottom 20%, and comparing them to find out exactly how much difference there is. Here’s what they came up with:

The more unequal countries are doing worse on all these kinds of social problems. It’s an extraordinarily close correlation.

We’re talking about all kinds of problems, certain of which are more pervasive at the lower end of the socio-economic ladder, all of them worse in the more unequal countries — not just a little bit worse, but anything from twice as common to 10 times as common. Wilkinson says:

What we’re looking at is general social disfunction related to inequality. It’s not just one or two things that go wrong, it’s most things.

Especially in the area of health and longevity, there is “a lot of difference between the poor and the rest of us,” according to Wilkinson. The research looks at life expectancy, infant mortality, homicide, teen birth rates, and many other indicators. Mental illness is one, including addiction to alcohol or hard drugs. Whole societies, Wilkinson says, have three times the mental illness rates as other societies, and it’s all tied up with economic inequality. Inequality has psychosocial effects:

More to do with feelings of superiority and inferiority, of being valued and devalued, respected and disrespected… The big change in our understanding of drivers of chronic health in the rich developed world is how important chronic stress from social sources is affecting the immune system, the cardiovascular system.

Psychosocial stress has the same detrimental effects on the human body and mind as any other kind of stress. Mental illness leads to homelessness, and homelessness leads to mental illness. Another vicious cycle is created by what Joel Dyer calls the “perpetual prisoner machine.” Where do homeless people come from? Sometimes, from prison. But that doesn’t mean they should be exiled forever. They’re not disposable people. And if a person never did time before, being homeless increases the likelihood of it, exponentially.

Wilkinson illustrates again and again how inequality affects not just the poor but the entire society. Although a closer approach to equality makes the most difference at the bottom, he points out, there are benefits at the top as well. Trust level is an interesting one. In the most unequal societies, only about 15% of the population feel that other people can be trusted. In the most equal societies, the number is more like 60%. In more equal societies, there is more community involvement, and that means making sure everybody is involved, who wants to be. Including people experiencing homelessness, who, if community is real, can and will be helped to escape that condition.

“How economic inequality harms societies” can also be reached via Universal Living Wage  (click on “What’s New” on the menu on the left).

Reactions?

Source: “About TED,” TED.com
Source: “Richard Wilkinson: How economic inequality harms societies,” dotSUB.com
Image by Jerry.

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Three Kinds of Homeless

Lou-&-AndyThe subject of Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) by novelist George Orwell is about poverty in the late 1920s. For the poor, the fabled Roaring Twenties were dismal. Orwell came from an impoverished upper-class English family. The homelessness he experienced and described in his books may not have been strictly unavoidable. Even though a young man was expected to make his own way in the world, this young man’s parents would always have rescued him to the farthest extent of their ability.

But Orwell always wanted to know how the poor lived. He was never one to turn a blind eye to injustice, or to take the mass media’s word for anything. It was partly in the spirit of investigative journalism that he experienced homelessness and a tenuous hold on survival at the very fringes of society. James Wood says:

Even when he was working as a journalist in London, [Orwell] lived simply, without much luxury. There is a religious dimension to this, almost — a need to take a kind of vow of poverty, to dismantle his own privilege and luxury, to be other than his social background.

Like a war correspondent, he signed up for discomfort and danger. (Later on, he did actually participate in and write about a war, the one that idealists of his era volunteered for.) In Paris, he competed in the desperate scramble for work, showing up at a designated corner, hoping to be chosen for a miserable day’s employment. He took part in the exhausting life of the lowest-status drudges in great hotels and restaurants, working in 100-degree heat through 18-hour days, for less than enough to get by on.

In London, he became familiar with the free shelters, called “spikes,” where a man could only stay once per month. This rule kept all the tramps in constant rotation, walking from shelter to shelter, quickly burning any calories they might have gained from the dreadful food. In their waking hours, the homeless were compelled to stay upright and in motion, and in the hours of rest they were confined in prison-like conditions, to cope with the stark boredom of enforced immobility and idleness.

Orwell stayed in the lowest grade of private lodging houses, government shelters, and charity facilities run by religious groups. He learned about the hassle and humiliation of pawning one’s few shabby belongings. He learned about the choice between washing in bathwater already used by a dozen people, or not washing at all. He learned about the smells, the filth, the frustration, the shunning, the major disasters and minor inconveniences, and the need to always watch your back because not all the other tramps are as honest and decent as you are. On the other hand, he wrote:

I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny…

Author Michael Ventura writes:

True adventurers learn, eventually, that anything can be an adventure if you live with an adventurer’s heart and your life is not a lie. But I was a greedy boy. I wanted my adventure to look like an adventure.

Ventura hit the streets very young, and somehow landed in another state, with a dysfunctional family who accepted him. He learned at a very tender age that money can’t insulate anyone from unhappiness, and also that “normal” is nowhere to be found. Whether or not a child really, truly, technically has a choice about running away from home is not for us to judge. For this child, the place he found was better than the one he had left behind, and certainly better than homelessness. He writes:

Strangers took me in. I wasn’t grateful. I felt no loyalty. They were not my kind. But I’d been on the street, alone, and I didn’t want to go back to that… I had been uprooted at age 13. By age 15, I sensed vaguely that I would never be, or feel, rooted again… If the world is a shooting gallery – and it is – I wanted to be a moving target.

If Thomas Kinkade was the “painter of light,” T. Coraghessan Boyle is the writer of heartbreak. His novel The Tortilla Curtain, published in 1995, glows with the kind of compassion found in Bruce Springsteen‘s lyrics. It’s about people who camp in a ravine, in need so abject that a toothbrush is an unthinkable luxury. It’s about undocumented immigration, or at least that’s the aspect most readers and critics latched onto. Scott Spencer says of the main characters:

Candido and America are part of California’s unacknowledged work force, cogs in the vast human machine that does the state’s brute labor and without whom… the state could probably not survive. Mr. Boyle is first-rate in capturing the terror of looking for work in an alien society… “You didn’t ask questions. You got in the back of the truck and you went where they took you.”

Mainly, the book is about grinding, abysmal poverty, about the desperate willingness to work when there is no work to do. About being grievously injured when it’s impossible to take the risk of asking for medical care. Being victimized and exploited by people from your own land who are just as poor as you. The particular pain of being around food when none of it is for you. The pain of watching your wife go off in a car with an ugly stranger who hires her to use a toxic chemical that will affect your unborn child, and then cheats her on the pay. Of being hated for no better reason than that you have the nerve to exist and draw breath on the planet. Of being a husband or father or wife or mother who can’t provide. As Michael Ventura says,

If you’re the parent, the caring parent, the shame and guilt damn near kill you – you feel it’s your fault even when you’re caught in an economic storm not remotely of your making.

There are many facets to the larger condition of experiencing homelessness. For a runaway teen, some authority figure might question whether she or he really, really had a choice — but who is wise enough to second-guess a decision of that magnitude for someone else? For young journalist George Orwell, sure, he could have stayed home mooching off his parents. On the other hand, given his burning sense of injustice and his drive to learn about how the poor lived and his mission to convey the truth to a prosperous, complacent upper class, he didn’t have a choice.

Once the choice has been made to come north, the couple from Mexico in Boyle’s novel really don’t have any choice but to camp outdoors. Try as they might, and they do try heroically, things just don’t work out for them, and their connection with the rest of the undocumented alien community is so tenuous, they’re unable to network and attempt to get indoors somehow that way. There may be as many kinds of homelessness as there are individuals, and judging their worthiness and whether they are “deserving” of help is a job a little bit bigger than most of us fallible humans are capable of taking on. The one thing we know for sure is that they need help.

There are many different kinds of homelessness. As today’s thought experiment, let’s consider how many of them can be helped by the Homeless Protected Class Resolution and the Universal Living Wage.

Reactions?

Source: “We’ll Always Have Paris,” NewYorker.com, 04/30/09
Source: “Letters at 3AM: ‘I Have Heard the Mermaids Singing’,” AustinChronicle.com, 06/29/12
Source: “The Tortilla Curtain by T. Coraghessan Boyle,” NYTimes.com, 09/03/95
Source: “Somehow It Gets to Be Tomorrow,” AustinChronicle.com, 02/26/10
Image by TheeErin, used under its Creative Commons license.

 

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The Vulnerability of Homeless Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard says:

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

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

Reactions?

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

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Jim Crow Rides Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reactions?

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

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Breathing While Homeless — More Illegal Than Ever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reactions?

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

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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!

Reactions?

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.

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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.

Reactions?

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.

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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.

Reactions?

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.

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Demographic Bulge Casts a Shadow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reactions?

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

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“Quality of Life” Ordinances — the Way Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

View and/or download the presentation by clicking below.

Finding a way forward

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