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Three Cities and Scott Bransford, Part 1

Tent City, SacramentoTwo years ago, the print publication High Country News published a long and detailed story by Scott Bransford, concentrating on tent cities in three American cities. Fresno, California, was rated by the Brookings Institution (a public policy institute, or think tank) in 2005 as the poorest American city. At the time when this piece was written, Fresno was estimated to contain about 2,000 people experiencing homelessness, of whom about 40% were said to have been incarcerated at some point.

Seeing a statistic like that, don’t you wonder how many of those incarcerations were a direct result of homelessness? Society and its laws have created a diabolical revolving door. What a futile exercise of power it is, to throw people in jail for vagrancy and then point the finger and say, “Look how many of those homeless people have criminal records!”

In his classic article, Bransford interviewed some of the 200-or-so people camping on Union Pacific Railroad land in the midst of Fresno, in a “squatter village” known as Taco Flat or Little Tijuana. He wrote,

Just to the south, under a freeway overpass, there’s another camp of roughly equal size called New Jack City where most of the residents are black. Even more makeshift dwellings are scattered throughout the neighborhood nearby.

The reporter named “tough-love social policies” and heedless real estate speculation as the main factors that have knocked people out of their jobs and homes. Humans don’t always make the best choices, and even if they are paragons of individual and social behavior, they can still be brought low by illness, disability, flood, fire, misguided financial investments, and a thousand other misfortunes.

Bransford suggests that the United States take a look at the rest of the world, where he contends that the “predominant mode of city-making” is from the ground up, with cities that develop out of slums. He says,

Informal urbanism, characterized by unauthorized occupation of land, makeshift construction, and lack of public utilities, is how many burgeoning nations meet their housing needs. It thrives in places like Fresno, where poverty is endemic and there is a wide gap between rich and poor.

As in Sacramento and Portland, the dispossessed people of Fresno won a lawsuit a few years back. They filed suit against their city and state, for destroying their property in a series of “sweeps.” The city and state were told to pay $2.3 million for damages. Yes, that is a good thing. It’s wonderful that the people experiencing homelessness also experienced some justice for a change.

But think how much good that money might have done if it had been used earlier, and in a different way. If that green energy had been spent some other way, maybe those particular people would not have been camping out, being vulnerable to having everything taken from them by the police. Maybe they would have had jobs and/or places to live.

Money is green energy, so this is reminiscent of words written in another context, but with a parallel meaning, by Richard R. Troxell:

Clearly, homelessness has taken root in America. It is very sad when we spend such energy to deal with the evils of homelessness instead of creating pathways to end it.

Nowadays, Fresno is one of the hot spots extensively covered by New America Media, or NAM, an organization with connections to more than 3,000 ethnic media. The young, a similarly “invisible community,” are NAM’s other important constituency. Prime example: Rebecca Plevin’s “Young and Homeless.”

We recently talked about Ontario, California, in relation to the irrational stupidity of police “sweeps.” But there is plenty more to say about Portland, Oregon. That will be coming up next.

Reactions?

Source: “Camping for their lives,” Utne.com, 2009
Image by Peta-de-Aztlan, used under its Creative Commons license.

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The Irrational Stupidity of Sweeps, Part 3

Tent CityBack in June 2009, Lise Fisher, staff writer for The Gainesville Sun in Florida, told readers about the arrest of a man for stabbing two other men (both admitted to the hospital in critical condition) in the section of town known as Tent City.

For the same publication, less than a week later, Karen Voyles gave the next installment of the story. It was decided that Tent City must go. The inhabitants were forewarned and the squatter village was depopulated and deconstructed. An estimated 200 campers were rousted and, according to the police, “scattered to other places around Gainesville.”

Capt. Lonnie Scott told the reporter,

Some have moved to other parts of the property. Others have moved to other wooded areas as well. Our goal is to have as safe an environment as we can for everyone, and it wasn’t safe in the other location.

Yes, the authorities spun the evacuation and razing of Tent City as a beneficent measure, undertaken for the sake of the inhabitants. According to the official party line, the encampment had to be cleared out for the safety of the people living there — which makes about as much sense as the Vietnam war’s “destroy the village in order to save it” rationale.

Question: After the stabber had been taken into custody, where was the threat? Question: If a knife attack happened in your neighborhood, would the police order you to grab what you could carry and get the hell out, and then tear your house down?

Leaving aside questions of private property and numerous other issues that could be brought up here, the point is the pointlessness. Hold onto that thought, and you will see why. And, meanwhile, keep this number in mind: 1,500. That’s how many people were experiencing homelessness in the Gainesville area at the time.

Voyles tells us,

Commissioners officially declared the clearing of Tent City an emergency, which allows St. Francis House homeless shelter and soup kitchen to house 60 people a night, far more than the regularly permitted 35.

Wow, how exceedingly humane! The city granted people permission to squeeze in and double up at the shelter, while for every one of them, 24 others remained out there somewhere, on the streets or in the woods.

A few days later, another writer, Arupa Freeman, picked up on the story and covered it from her perspective, expressed in the title of the piece, “Gainesville turns a blind eye toward the homeless.” Many of the Tent City people had been told they could move to an adjoining piece of land. But almost immediately that parcel too was posted with “No Trespassing” signs and the people were given one week’s notice to vacate.

Freeman wrote,

Residents will now be dispersed almost entirely, making it incredibly difficult for the Home Van and other community groups to bring people the food, water and other supplies they so desperately need.

Freeman noted that probably half of the Tent City residents should, by right, have been in the hospital, suffering as they were from old age, many kinds of physical handicaps and illnesses, and disabling mental conditions. She went on to say,

I have seen cruelty and horror in my life, but the forced evacuation of Tent City is the worst atrocity I have ever personally witnessed.

The writer went into detail about the criminalizing, bulldozing, neglectful, and abusive ways of the local government, sparing a kind word only for Commissioner Jack Donovon, who had expressed the opinion that the Tent City people should be helped like any other refugees.

Freeman affirmed,

He is right. They are refugees created by a society that does not pay its workers a living wage, which has almost no low-income housing (the waiting list for Section 8 housing is literally years long!), and little access to health care for the poor… When you exclude people, isolate people, and treat people with hatred and indifference, you are creating hell. When you include people, love people, and take care of people, you are creating heaven.

Well, the more things change, the more they stay the same, and heaven has not been created yet. Two years later, in late June of 2011, Tent City was once again a going concern. Apparently, the property owner had a change of heart somewhere along the line and granted permission for certain people to live on the land. The problem is, other people keep showing up who are not wanted by either the owner or the current residents.

Another staff writer for The Gainesville Sun, Cindy Swirko, quotes police crime prevention specialist Officer Ernest Graham:

For a very long time, folks in Tent City were kind of a quiet group… We’re starting to see an increase in trouble there. If we see more violent crime there, we may have to take a different approach…

Indeed, two weeks before that ominous warning was issued, a Tent City woman was viciously beaten and admitted to the intensive care unit with massive injuries, in need of extensive reconstructive surgery. The attacker, also a Tent City resident, was charged with attempted murder. Will this lead to another clear-out and clean-up of the area? Another episode of disruption, as pointless and futile as the previous clear-outs and clean-ups? Another round of community-busting and the dispersal of people experiencing homelessness to other corners of the inhospitable city? Stay tuned.

Reactions?

Source: “GPD: Stabbing suspect had prior homicide convictions,” The Gainesville Sun, 06/03/09
Source: “Tent City homeless in limbo,” The Gainesville Sun, 06/09/09
Source: “Arupa Freeman: Gainesville turns a blind eye toward the homeless,” The Gainesville Sun, 06/16/09
Source: “Homeless are back in Tent City, and so is the crime,” The Gainesville Sun, 06/24/11
Source: “Homeless woman beaten in Tent City,” The Gainesville Sun, 06/04/11
Image by ryanlachica (ryan kuonen), used under its Creative Commons license.

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Property Theft in Sacramento

HomelessIn May, Cynthia Hubert reported for The Sacramento Bee on a very unusual class-action lawsuit in which people experiencing homelessness sued Sacramento, California, for violating their constitutional rights by seizing and disposing of their property.

Spoiler alert: Here is the outcome of this legal action, the most significant line in the piece… On second thought, it’s not much of a spoiler. No surprise at all, in what is also the most predictable line:

But [Senior Deputy City Attorney] Trimm said he expects no immediate changes in city policy on the homeless.

You have to admire the guy. He tells it like it is, in a city with tough rules that prohibit staying in “undesignated areas” for more than 24 hours, and with apparently very little consideration for the belongings of street people anywhere, at any time.

One of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, Mark Merin, is known as a longtime advocate for the homeless. The suit was filed in 2009, against both city and county, and the county agreed to a $488,000 settlement payment. (A similar outcome recently occurred in Oregon.) But the city of Sacramento refused to settle.

Chance Trimm, who is, as we mentioned, Senior Deputy City Attorney, told the jurors a sad story about how, at times, it is unclear “what is usable property, and what is junk that no one wants.” He talks as if this whole lawsuit is about the necessity to clean up the disgusting messes that people leave behind when they vacate a tent city or a camp.

Does this make sense? Who leaves a tent city? Individuals may come and go, but everybody doesn’t clear out at once, unless there is a good reason, such as a sweep or cleanup, or whatever the current local terminology may be. If camps are tolerated, they tend to stabilize and grow. If a tent city is unpopulated, it’s because the people were forced to leave, and to leave their stuff behind.

If, as Trimm says, the problem is distinguishing usable property from junk, why not just ask somebody: “Hey, what about this tarp? Is this usable, or junk?” Problem is, in the circumstances he’s talking about, nobody is around to ask. The people have already been removed from the area and the police and their hirelings are busy throwing everything into dumpsters. In other words, the authorities try to make it sound like the issue is abandoned property of questionable usefulness.

But some of the plaintiffs are talking about having stuff taken right out of their hands. Linda McKinley recounted her experience of being awakened in the middle of the night when sleeping on the street.

The journalist reports,

‘They put all our stuff in a trailer,’ she said. ‘They just picked it up and threw it in there like garbage.’ Among the items she lost that day, she said, were her identification card, eyeglasses, medication, legal papers and photographs. ‘I just lost everything,’ she said. ‘It was really devastating. It was like losing my house in a sense. It was like I had been stripped.’

Senior Deputy City Attorney Trimm also testified that policies are applied equally to everyone, and that homeless people and their property are not treated differently from any other people or property. Could there have been a straight face in the courtroom?

Something else is wacky here. If a previous criminal record is allowed to be discussed, the purpose is to discredit a witness in the eyes of the judge and jury. During the course of these proceedings, the state got Marinthia Hunt to admit she’s had 10 tickets for illegal camping. Well, duh! That’s why the woman is here, because the trial concerns the things that happen to people on the streets, such as receiving tickets for, basically, the crime of breathing while homeless.

How did the lawsuit, the homeless against the city, turn out? Hubert reports,

Technically, homeless men and women… won a constitutional victory Tuesday in federal court. But following a mixed verdict in a civil lawsuit that questioned the city’s handling of property collected during police sweeps of homeless camps, it is unclear whether anything will change in the ongoing cat-and-mouse game between cops and the down and out.

The jury deliberated for more than five days and decided that the city had failed in the areas of proper notification about how to recover any seized belongings, and of implementation of whatever policies previously existed. But the jury rejected the claim that the city’s bad habits constitute a “long-standing custom and practice.”

Actually, the outcome sounds rather vague. Hubert writes,

The lawsuit did not ask for specific damages, and it remains unclear exactly what remedy the plaintiffs will seek. Instead, attorneys from both sides, with the court’s help, will try to sort out how the plaintiffs should be compensated for constitutional violations cited by the jury.

John Burdett writes novels about Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a Buddhist cop in Thailand, probably the only uncorrupted representative of the government in the entire country. His boss seems to keep him on the force as kind of a token, or mascot, or good-luck charm. For some reason, one of Hubert’s paragraphs about the Sacramento trial brings that fictional character to mind:

In his opening statement, Trimm said officers assigned to homeless issues have reached out to campers, at times helping them connect to services or transporting them to court dates. Officer Mark Zoulas, part of a city police team that homeless people fondly refer to as ‘Batman and Robin,’ will be the city’s star witness. ‘He cares for them. He cares for their safety,’ Trimm said of Zoulas.

Okay, some kind of ersatz comic book hero of an officer is helping the homeless and, incidentally, being used to put a good public relations face on the Sacramento police force. Meanwhile, a genuine, U.S. government-certified hero is robbed of the tangible reminders of his courage and sacrifice.

Hubert relates the story of plaintiff Kendall Gabriel:

[…] An Army veteran who said he lost a Silver Star and a Purple Heart for combat service during a police sweep downtown on Ahern Street in 2005. Gabriel, in a hallway interview, said police grabbed a bag containing those items and others and refused to give it back. It took him two years to replace the medals, he said, and the new ones are not engraved with his name like the originals.

Reactions?

Source: “Federal court hears from homeless about police seizing their possessions,” The Sacramento Bee, 05/10/11
Source: “Sacramento homeless gain mixed verdict on loss of possessions,” The Sacramento Bee, 05/25/11
Image by Risiger, used under its Creative Commons license.

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The Irrational Stupidity of Sweeps, Part 2

Homeless guy PTFOSt. Petersburg, Florida, is said to be making progress. Here is Associated Press writer Mitch Stacy’s account of the city’s recent history:

Four years ago, St. Petersburg’s struggles with some of the most rampant homelessness in the country reached a crescendo… The 2007 tent city raid… became a chamber of commerce nightmare after a cellphone video of officers slashing tents showed up on YouTube and TV… and didn’t make a dent in the growing crowd of people living on the city’s streets.

Then somebody came along with a better idea. Robert Marbut is a student of urban problems, with a record of turning things around in San Antonio, where he was mainly responsible for the existence of the huge Haven for Hope complex. He attributes St. Petersburg’s glut of people experiencing homelessness to several causes, one of the chief causes being the large number of veterans with mental health issues.

Marbut is quoted as saying,

What was incredible to me was how much money was being spent, how much energy was being spent and there was no success.

Marbut’s “velvet hammer” plan for the city is described by Stacy as:

… forcing the homeless off the streets but taking them someplace better — a sprawling, one-stop complex where people could be housed, fed and start to get help with mental illness, addictions and the other problems that put them on the streets. More than a just big shelter, it would be a ‘transformational campus…’

The complex is called Safe Harbor, and if there is a bed available there or at the St. Vincent de Paul shelter, the police can make a person either go to one of the shelters or go to jail. Of course, the solid citizens appreciate the cleaned-up aspect of the downtown area. But what about the folks who wind up at the transformational campus? That is a topic for another day.

Ontario, California, used to have quite a sizeable squatter village of some 400 people. Scott Bransford tells how, instead of destroying the camp, the authorities spent $100,000 to turn the place into something like a minimum-security penal institution.

The reporter says,

… [P]olice and code enforcement officers issued color-coded bracelets to distinguish Ontario residents from newcomers, then gradually banished the out-­of-towners. Then they demolished the shanties and set up an official camp with a chain-link fence and guard shack. Residents were issued IDs and a strict set of rules: no coming and going after 10 p.m., no pets, no children or visitors, no drugs, and no alcohol.

Dauntingly restrictive as all that sounds, not everyone has left. Some residents saw this change as a welcome respite from chaos and violence, looking at the place as a (very) low-rent version of a gated community. But for those excluded from the camp, the ones who just couldn’t take it (or had children or pets), there was nowhere else to go, except back to sleeping in cars or on some other vacant lot.

Everybody’s gotta be someplace,” and even a relatively gentle and non-hostile sweep disperses the residents to new venues, annoying the citizenry even more, offering even more opportunities for arrests. The reporter adds,

Many of these outcasts see the camp as a symbol of injustice, a cynical and inauthentic gesture of compassion… Whenever officials act to destroy or stifle them with punitive regulations, they not only wipe out the pride of residents struggling to survive, they also jettison a spirit of self-­reliance and innovation that could be harnessed to help meet the housing needs of the future.

In Watsonville, California, people experiencing homelessness have been living along the Pajaro River for decades, with the authorities breaking up their camps once or twice a year, and the camps being rebuilt, in a cyclical rhythm. Human waste pollutes the river, and now the state is leaning on the city to make monthly sweeps of the area.

Just last week, a major “cleanup” was carried out, as Donna Jones reports for the Santa Cruz Sentinel. The inhabitants, some of whom have lived along the riverbank for years, were reportedly given at least a couple days warning of the impending eviction. Volunteers were recruited from local drug and alcohol rehab programs to tear down structures and load dumpsters. Of course, the first question that springs to mind is, has anybody considered providing some toilet facilities, maybe even some washing facilities? This article doesn’t say.

Reactions?

Source: “St. Pete making progress with legions of homeless,” Santa Cruz Sentinel, 09/05/11
Source: “Camping for their lives,” Utne.com, 2009
Source: “Watsonville chases homeless out of river,” Santa Cruz Sentinel, 09/01/11
Image by majerleagues (Andrew Majer), used under its Creative Commons license.

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Sweeps and Cleanups

Homeless shantyIn mid-August, in Riverhead, New York, an emergency homeless shelter located in a motel was subjected to a raid that some local citizens called despicable and Gestapo-like. Ten officers and officials descended upon the shelter and searched 37 rooms, questioning the people and photographing their personal papers and other belongings. What kind of a judge would even sign a warrant for something like that?

Supposedly, the authorities were looking for overcrowded conditions and improvements made to the premises without permits, stuff that all sounds very above-board but offers no justification whatever for interrogating resident families and taking pictures of their ID and possessions. They ran everybody through the computer and arrested a woman for a traffic violation, who had to leave her baby at the shelter.

The raid was cunningly timed for just after the close of regular business hours on a Friday, making it impossible for homeless advocates to reach anyone with the power to stop it.

Around the same time, a camp in Oregon was broken up, as reported for The Register-Guard by Saul Hubbard. Eight people lived on the small bit of land behind an auto repair business, where contractors hired by the railroad cleared away brush that had previously obscured the site, and allowed their machinery to damage structures and tents.

Hubbard writes,

James Potts, director of operations for Northwest HazMat, said that the work was part of a monthlong cleanup all along the tracks. He added that their goal Thursday had been ‘to expose the area so that these people are inclined to leave.’

One of “these people,” a middle-aged woman, told the reporter that the small group of residents had banded together as neighbors, and that she felt safer in the bushes than in many designated homeless shelters. But the neighboring businesses and residents have always been opposed to the settlement, from which some disruptive behavior has originated.

The strange twist to this story is that the land where the camp sits is not owned by the railroad or the repair shop, but by an absentee landlord who leases it to St. Vincent de Paul, the long-term tenant and proprietor of an adjacent used-car lot. The charity organization has been extremely active in serving people experiencing homelessness in Eugene for many years.

The journalist says,

Charley Harvey, assistant executive director of St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County, said he was aware of the homeless camp but that ‘he didn’t have any problems with it.’… ‘Criminal activity has actually gone down there since people started staying there,’ he said.

Eugene, Oregon, once known as a progressive city with a model safe parking and homeless camping programs, is struggling, but is still known as a better place to be homeless than, for instance, neighboring Medford or Central Point.

Sometimes the displacement is not sudden or violent. Back in January, in Fort Worth, Texas, members of the Abbey Church helped a group of homeless people disassemble and clean up an encampment that had held about 50 tents. They had graciously been given a week’s warning by landowner XTO energy, which is more than such settlements have been granted in many other places.

Alex Branch reported for the Star-Telegram,

Volunteers are paying to put some campers in motels for the short term, Paredes said. The long-term plan is to pair the homeless people with churches whose members will try to help them overcome the problems that forced them onto the street.

*****

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Reactions?

Source: “Social services chief blasts Riverhead for ‘gestapo-like’ raid of homeless shelter,” Riverheadlocal.com, 08/13/11
Source: “Crew breaks up homeless camp,” RegisterGuard.com, 08/19/11
Source: “Church volunteers help clear away homeless camp near downtown Fort Worth,” Star-Telegram.com, 01/15/11
Image by Kevin Burkette, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Property Theft in Oregon

BagsFor people experiencing homelessness, holding onto belongings is difficult. The danger of theft is one reason why shelters are sometimes avoided. And if some desperate person doesn’t take things away, the authorities will. What is called a “cleanup” of an area naturally includes the theft and destruction of property that belongs to homeless people.

It may be property that no one else would want or care about, but if an old bedroll is the only thing a person owns, the loss is grave and significant. For the Portland Tribune, Kevin Harden reports on the “cleanup” of a homeless camp in Oregon, as seen through the eyes of a homeless man named Joel Tucker. Harden says,

In March 2010, while he was away from his campsite near Interstate 205 and Southeast 92nd Avenue, state employees swept through the area, rousting campers and gathering up Tucker’s tent, sleeping bag, clothing, medication and tarp. Tucker returned to discover that his few possessions were missing. It took him 21 days to retrieve them from a state storage facility…

A lot of homeless camps exist on property belonging to the Oregon’s Department of Transportation (and one school of thought says, if it belongs to the state, it belongs to the people — and why should the people not sleep on their own land?). So it’s mainly ODOT employees and law enforcement personnel who carry out these sweeps. One of the problems is that they are none too careful about separating belongings from junk or trash.

Harden says,

In mid-April, Tucker joined five other homeless people who are suing Oregon’s Department of Transportation, the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office and up to 50 unidentified county and state employees in federal court for what they say were violations of their Fourth Amendment constitutional rights against unreasonable search and seizure and the failure of the agencies to follow state rules on storing personal items found in homeless camps.

The six plaintiffs, who camped in the same area, were relieved of such crucial items as ID cards and birth certificates, bus passes, bikes, sleeping bags, and a personal DVD player. Yes, that’s crucial too. When a person has nothing else, morale can stand or fall on a device that plays music and movies.

Plaintiff Jeff Nelson lost belongings in three different sweeps. Ironically, a few years back, while residing in the Multnomah County jail, he used to be on a crew of prisoners who were paid a dollar a day to “clean up” homeless encampments. There is something distasteful about the state (or the prison’s corporate owner) using inmates to do things against the interests of people who are, in some cases, even worse off, even though they are technically free.

It certainly went against the grain for Nelson. He told the journalist,

I felt that what happened at camps sweeps was stealing from people who had nothing to steal.

The Oregon Law Center represented the plaintiffs, who also wanted an injunction to prevent employees of the county from taking personal property without notice. Apparently, sometimes that “notice” thing just slips right by them. The state is supposed to keep property for at least a month, during which time it ought to be “reasonably available” to the owner who wants to claim it. Which doesn’t always happen, either. In April, Law Center attorney Monica Goracke did not foresee an out-of-court settlement.

But when Harden followed up this story less than a month ago, a settlement had been reached, and ODOT is to pay $14,000 for attorneys’ fees and $10,000 to be divided among the six homeless plaintiffs. The agency also agreed to make some better rules for campsite “sweeps” and tell its employees to follow them.

It seems like business entrepreneurs would be looking for ways to provide cheap storage for the homeless. The space could be anything from a small locker for a winter coat and boots, to whatever size a person could afford. Salvage yards must be full of old metal lockers removed from schools. Mini-storage cubicles must be one of the easiest types of buildings to build. It would be helpful if anyone reading this could point to an example of someone who is doing this.

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless campers sue to block state from destroying belongings,” The Portland Tribune, 04/27/11
Source: “ODOT settles federal lawsuit by homeless campers,” The Portland Tribune, 07/26/11
Image by Garry Knight, used under its Creative Commons license.

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To Avoid Homelessness, Workers Need Better Pay

Abandoned-4Corporate America’s chokehold on wages” is a piece by Harold Meyerson that appeared in The Washington Post, Austin’s The Statesman, and many other newspapers. The author begins by engaging our interest in the question of why we, as American consumers, are still in a dismal economic situation. The answer is twofold: a lot of people are unemployed, and a lot of people with jobs are underpaid.

Writing in a conversational tone, Meyerson explores the implications of the words and ideas of J.P. Morgan Chase’s chief investment officer, Michael Cembalest. The journalist says of Cembalest,

He asserted in the July 11 edition of ‘Eye on the Market,’ the bank’s regular report to its private banking clients, that ‘US labor compensation is now at a 50-year low relative to both company sales and US GDP.’

There are three major reasons why corporate profits are flourishing: low wages, the offshoring of jobs, and innovation stemming from research and development. The biggest factor contributing to swollen profits, Meyerson says, is the low pay. In the 500 top companies that Standard & Poor keeps track of,

… profit margins (the share of a company’s revenue that goes to profits)… are at their highest levels since the mid-1960s…

Meyerson gives a very complete explanation, the gist of which is that, for workers, both wages and benefits have shrunk. He writes,

This decline in wages and benefits, Cembalest calculates, is responsible for about 75 percent of the increase in our major corporations’ profit margins.

As for the causes, there seem to be several. Although good pay is better than easy credit, something went wrong years ago, when it became easier for Americans to get ruinous amounts of credit than to get the adequate wages they needed and deserved. It’s like bringing up a child on cotton candy instead of vegetables. The long-term results can be gruesome.

Also, Meyerson blames the decline of the unions and talks about a hearing held by the National Labor Relations Board in July, during which testimony from 61 witnesses has revealed that…

… union elections have declined 80 percent since 1970… In the America of 2011, there are scarcely any union organizing campaigns. There are fewer union members: Just 7 percent of private-sector employees are unionized, down from 35 percent in the 1950s… The strike as a bargaining tool for workers is now the province of professional athletes, the last American employees who have enough clout even to contemplate taking a walk… Surely the fact that the great majority of American employers no longer have to sit down and hammer out collective bargaining contracts with their workers has contributed to the increase in profits at wages’ expense.

One thing that corporations often forget is that underpaid workers can’t afford to buy stuff. And who are underpaid workers not able to buy stuff from? The corporations. If almost everybody is broke, who is left to fill the role of consumer, customer, or client? In other words, stiffing the workers would seem to be a counterproductive policy, in the long run. Paying people fairly, even generously, is good for business.

Yet, most working people are underpaid. Some have supplemental means, or extraordinary management skills, or three jobs. They contrive to hang on by their fingernails to a viable lifestyle, and experience a relatively high degree of housing security.

Others are the working poor. Even with a full-time job, many workers are unable to afford housing even for themselves. And a family? Forget it. The working poor are tossed from one precarious situation to the next, sometimes living in a vehicle or a relative’s garage, often dependent on an aid program to make it at all, eternally teetering on the edge of disaster. The economic homeless are employed and ought to have every reasonable expectation of being able to afford a place to live, and yet, they can’t.

House the Homeless invites you to learn more about the Universal Living Wage. The benefit of the ULW is that it will end homelessness for over 1,000,000 minimum-wage workers, and prevent economic homelessness for all of 10.1 million minimum-wage workers.

Reactions?

Source: “Corporate America’s chokehold on wages,” WashingtonPost.com, 07/19/11
Image by Vimages (Pierre Vignau), used under its Creative Commons license.

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Creating Homelessness in the Antelope Valley, Part 2

Phonehenge West - Schiro

The story titled “L.A. County’s Private Property War,” by the L.A. Weekly‘s Mars Melnicoff, goes into extensive detail about how the ruggedly independent settlers and longtime landowners of California’s Antelope Valley are being cleared out. About five years ago, they noticed an increase in the selective enforcement of zoning rules and building codes, along with general hassling and harassment.

When they got together and compared notes, they realized that something dark, insidious, and deliberate is going on. Paranoia? Doesn’t look like it. Looks like a major land grab, pure and simple, for the benefit of developers with big ideas. The likelihood of this is clear to attorney Robert McNamara of the Institute for Justice, who is quoted:

That certainly does happen. We have seen zoning enforcement that can be explained by nothing else.

Besides, the longest-serving member of the county Board of Supervisors has already revealed his plans for the area on his website. Unfortunately, the place is within commuting distance of Los Angeles. It’s a hardscrabble existence for the “desert rats,” but with them out of the way, corporate investment in amenities could turn the area into… anything.

One after another, families and individuals are being manipulated into leaving, through penalties for victimless misdemeanors and code violations. It doesn’t matter that a community is destroyed. It doesn’t matter how many people are losing what they had worked for all their lives, or how many local businesses go under. Somebody wants them out of there.

Melnicoff says,

Tough code enforcement has been ramped up in these unincorporated areas of L.A. County, leaving the iconoclasts who chose to live in distant sectors of the Antelope Valley frightened, confused and livid. They point the finger at the Board of Supervisors’ Nuisance Abatement Teams, known as NAT, instituted in 2006…

The NAT crew makes first contact armed, and clad in bulletproof vests — an entire team of Sheriff’s deputies, health inspectors, District Attorney’s investigators, zoning officers, inspectors from Building and Safety, and animal control personnel. (Speaking of which, the same kind of multi-agency, heavily armed contingent is sent out against 85-year-old grannies with too many cats. That’s just how they do things in L.A. County.)

The head of the NAT maintains that the safety of his teams is more important than the convenience of someone in an “unknown structure.” Oscar Castaneda, pastor of a historic church in one of the area’s few towns, knows about this. After 22 years of peace and quiet, he was ordered one day to “freeze” in front of his home, out in the middle of nowhere.

An elderly woman in a similarly remote spot exited her cabin to find it surrounded by combatants in body armor, with guns drawn. These crews show up and tell people they are living on their land illegally, and threaten them with liens and bulldozers. People have been jailed for trespassing on their own land. Most of those affected can’t afford lawyers and can’t afford to hire helpers for the wrecking work. People who thought they were safely retired are forced to dismantle their own homes board by board and nail by nail.

Melnicoff says,

Some residents believe that county Nuisance Abatement Teams order the more modest compliance actions first, such as weed-clearing, then build up to ordering residents to remove their homes, saving the county from paying for costly cleanup once a dweller with little financial means is pushed out.

Their methods are effective. The reporter tells of an “off-the-grid family living atop a 4,000-foot mountain,” just trying to be left alone and care for their mentally disabled adult son. The Kirpsies were prosecuted as criminals, in violation for their old trailer homes and scrap-metal recycle heaps. They only avoided prison by agreeing to totally clear the land and move to another state. There’s one family gotten rid of. They had somewhere to go, but others don’t.

Zoning official Oscar Gomez ought to have his own stand-up comedy act. He told Melnicoff that horrid things like sheds and trailers “bring the property value down.” Wait, what? The stakeholders are the people who currently own their land, and who built homes planning to stay there forever and never sell anyway. Why is the county making the “property value” its problem? Why is the county blathering on about “safety,” as if homelessness will somehow be “safer” than even the most ramshackle dwelling?

Kevin Scanlon’s five-minute videotape introduces a few of the people and homes referenced in the article. And treat yourself to Devin Schiro’s enchanting video portrait of Phonehenge West, an architectural marvel 20 years in the making. Many believe it should be preserved like the Watts Towers, the Winchester Mystery House, and other examples of American folk art.

Schiro invites viewers to:

… join a growing community of people who protest what we consider the senseless persecution of a man whose only ‘offense’ is taking a stand on behalf of beauty, creativity, and the inalienable right of free expression.

It is heartbreaking to hear retired phone technician Kim Fahey recount his relationship with the authorities. Fahey became the national media face of this struggle because of the remarkable desert structure, which is being demolished despite the fact that he deliberately built it to exceed the code requirements.

He lost his five-year court fight last month, and has already been jailed and bailed out, and then hospitalized for a medical problem exacerbated by all the stress. He could end up serving seven years in prison, for building a house. On his land alone, there are several people facing homelessness.

Fahey told the reporter,

The story is more important than me, because they are doing this to thousands of people. I’m just trying to bring it to the forefront.

Reactions?

Source: “L.A. County’s Private Property War,” LAWeekly.com, 06/23/11
Source: “L.A. County’s Private Property War (VIDEO),” LAWeekly, 06/23/11
Screen capture of Phonehenge West by Devin Schiro, used with permission.

2

Creating Homelessness in the Antelope Valley, Part 1

High Desert ViewSpeaking of veterans, there’s a guy named Joey Gallo, a disabled vet with three serious medical conditions. Up until recently, he was living on his own land, with his cat and dog, in a remote location in California’s Antelope Valley. Officials began to show up and order him to get rid of stuff — at first, trash and weeds. Next, it was a motor home they said he couldn’t keep. Then, they escalated their demands and made him demolish some sheds.

Finally, they came back and ordered him to tear down his home. You’ve heard of the Stand Down, an event where homeless veterans can get help. Adding outrageous insult to injury, one government minion presented him with a flyer giving the date and location of the next Stand Down — as if to say, “Welcome to your new life, loser.” Will Gallo’s next stop be Skid Row? If so, he may meet some neighbors there.

We have already offered (satiric) lessons on “How to Become Homeless.” One way is to be a resident of this high desert region which is, unfortunately, only an hour or so travel time from Los Angeles. The local administration is trying very hard to cause massive homelessness out there. The photo on this page gives an idea of the sparseness of the population in the high desert region. There might be half a mile between dwellings. Yet the authorities insist that anonymous neighbors are constantly making “eyesore” complaints about various structures and vehicles, many of which are only visible from the air.

Under the aegis of the L.A. Weekly, Mars Melnicoff devoted six weeks to investigating the horrifying situation, and accomplished what promises to be an award-winning piece of journalism, “L.A. County’s War on Desert Rats.” A message comes through loud and clear: the victims of the Antelope Valley Land Grab are living national treasures, the quintessence of all the qualities that made America great.

The writer shows how the rugged individualists at the hardscrabble butt-end of nowhere are being systematically removed from their homes for some murky, as-yet-unknown reason. It’s kind of like one of those “sweeps” of the homeless that cities do before the Olympics or the political convention. Except these folks are on their own land — or what used to be their land — so the process is taking just a bit longer.

Melnicoff says,

The government can define land on which residents have lived for years as ‘vacant’ if their cabins, homes and mobile homes are on parcels where the land use hasn’t been legally established. Some have been jailed for defying the officials in downtown Los Angeles, while others have lost their savings and belongings trying to meet the county’s ‘final zoning enforcement orders.’ Los Angeles County has left some residents, who appeared to be doing no harm, homeless.

Melnicoff tells their stories. Some are retired people, who thought they were finished with hard labor, and figured they had earned the right to enjoy the little corner of the world they had paid for and fixed up to their liking. She tells of people who live frugal, thrifty, minimalist lives, and sincerely practice recycling far beyond sorting trash into different-colored buckets.

They came here to get off the grid, practice “VONU,” make monumental art, race their dirt bikes, commune with the spirits of the ancestors, or whatever. That’s why people settle in environmentally inhospitable areas in the first place: they possess a fine willingness to trade the convenience and amenities of the city for the space and opportunity to do things their way. They are people who can’t afford lawyers when they’re being railroaded, hogtied, and hung out to dry. They came here to get away from the depredations of gang members, and ran afoul of a much more dangerous gang — the bureaucrats of Los Angeles County.

(To be continued.)

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

3

The Mentally Ill Homeless: Cause and Effect

ProfessionalIn Looking Up at the Bottom Line, Richard R. Troxell suggests that the arrangements made decades ago for the care of America’s mentally ill have resulted in another case of good intentions gone wrong. It was a reform movement, concerned with disability rights and independent living. Some institutions were terrible places.

Richard says,

Disgruntled, underpaid workers were physically and mentally abusing our mentally ill citizens. Legal Aid in Chicago filed a lawsuit that called for deinstitutionalization. Similar lawsuits swept the country. This coincided with the advent of psychotropic drugs such as Lithium. Mental health providers faced heavy social service dollar reductions. There was the hope that these things could be balanced by treating people on an outpatient basis. They would treat people while they were on a kind of invisible tether.

We have talked about why the consequences didn’t match the theory. When Richard was drafting the Homeless Protected Class Resolution, about one-fourth of the adult homeless in America suffered from some type of mental illness. When he was writing Looking Up at the Bottom Line, the low-side estimate was more like one-third. When House the Homeless in Austin conducted its 2010 health survey, 175 of the 501 respondents had been diagnosed with mental illness.

This was an issue in the struggle over Austin’s No Sit/No Lie Ordinance earlier this year. The ordinance was bad enough already, but it discriminated against people with disabilities of all kinds, and especially against those with mental disabilities. With the help of several other agencies, House the Homeless was able to file some of the roughest edges off the ordinance.

Unintended consequences are the dark side of any social experiment. When plans are being made, the person who says, “But, wait…,” and describes a possible bad outcome, is often labeled as a naysayer and a negative thinker. But sometimes optimism, especially optimism based on the availability of funding, turns out to have been unjustified.

Our country in the 1980s was not prepared for a massive influx of troubled and dysfunctional people into the mainstream. Maybe it all happened too fast, maybe nobody was thinking ahead. Whatever programs and protections were organized for the support of so many confused individuals turned out to be inadequate, and the situation has only gotten worse.

A fascinating brand-new report from Dr. Guy Johnson and Prof. Chris Chamberlain of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia reveals a surprise:

They found only 15 per cent had mental health issues before becoming homeless, while 16 per cent of the sample developed mental health problems after becoming homeless.

Are you getting that? Half of the mentally ill homeless became that way after becoming homeless. Australia is a lot like the United States, and has about the same proportion of the mentally ill people experiencing homelessness. It wouldn’t be at all surprising to learn that half of America’s mentally ill homeless, too, got that way after becoming homeless. It’s enough to tip anybody over the edge, especially in a life already filled with stressors.

Worse, the Australian research shows that the young are most vulnerable to mental health challenges that are caused by or exacerbated by the homeless condition. And, even worse than that, the young are apt to develop substance abuse issues along with mental health problems.

Dr. Johnson, who is a researcher for the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, seems to be saying that treating mental illness is too little, too late. It may lop off some of the problem’s branches, but it does not attack the root. Homelessness is the root of a large share of mental illness, not the other way around.

Concentrating on mental health, he says, deflects attention from the lack of housing, the inability of people to pay for what housing there is, and the inevitable family breakdown that results. The belief that mental illness is the primary cause of homelessness sends the wrong message to policy-makers about exactly what services are needed to end homelessness.

Dr. Johnson goes for the Housing First approach, saying:

Homelessness does cause mental health issues, particularly anxiety and depression, and is a serious problem for a significant minority of homeless people… For homeless people directly affected by these structural factors, the solution lies outside the medical arena – and research indicates that providing housing to homeless people before treating their mental health issues is actually a more effective approach.

Reactions?

Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Amazon.com
Source: “Research sheds light on homelessness and mental illness,” RMIT.edu, 06/06/11
Image by AR McLin, used under its Creative Commons license.

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