A Family Experiencing Homelessness, and Two Questions

Rise of the Super Rich

Some Americans are comfortably situated and equipped to handle an unpleasant surprise. But many are on the brink of disaster. After an adverse incident, if a person or family can’t recover fast enough before the next crisis looms, the whole house of cards can collapse.

Many people think they know what homelessness is all about. But they don’t, which is why reporters like Eric Wahlgren are so valuable and why publications like DailyFinance must be thanked for devoting energy and space to profiles of people experiencing homelessness, reminding us that just about any life has the negative potential to go off the rails.

In a series called “The New Homeless,” a young fellow named Mike is interviewed. Having worked as a chef for years, Mike wanted a new career, and pursued it by returning to school to study software engineering. But his employer reduced his schedule drastically, and although Mike was able to hang in there long enough to get a bachelor’s degree, the domino effect had started.

No one would hire Mike as a Web developer because he had no experience in that field. In the lousy economy, restaurants were cutting back, not hiring. Mike and his wife and two children moved to California’s San Francisco Bay area, where tech jobs supposedly abounded, and Mike would certainly prosper.

The family stayed in a series of cheap lodgings while Mike hunted jobs. Then, his unemployment insurance ran out and they were really up the creek. As a last resort, they asked for and were promised a loan from a relative — which never arrived. Mike and his wife and their two kids were officially homeless.

How can this happen to a young man ambitious enough to improve himself through higher education, enterprising and courageous enough to transplant his family to a new place with better prospects, and able and willing to hold a steady job? Mike did everything right, all the steps we were taught would lead to security and success. What is wrong with an America where that formula no longer applies? So, that’s one question.

Mike’s longtime employer, before the move, was in the business of preparing food for private jet flights, and Wahlgren says,

In February, the catering company Mike worked for dramatically cut his hours. Thanks to the Great Recession, people just weren’t flying in private jets much anymore.

Okay, now the other question: What’s going on here? Somehow, it doesn’t add up, especially when you see an article like this one by staff reporter Annalyn Censky for CNN, that traces the different pathways taken by the fortunes of the very rich, and the rest of us, over the past few decades. Behold, the most in-your-face graphic ever, a chart that is cartoonlike in its obviousness, its zigzag lines diverging so emphatically to define the ever-widening gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”

The piece is called, “How the middle class became the underclass.” Censky writes,

Middle-class incomes have been stagnant for at least a generation, while the wealthiest tier has surged ahead at lighting speed… the richest 1% of Americans — those making $380,000 or more — have seen their incomes grow 33% over the last 20 years, leaving average Americans in the dust.

Censky discusses the various reasons for the death of the middle class, like greatly weakened labor unions, deregulation of banks, jobs outsourced to other countries, tax cuts for the wealthiest, and hanky-panky in the stock market.

The chart that illustrates Censky’s article comes from economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, and is apparently the very thing that caused President Obama to decide that raising taxes on the super rich is the right thing to do. Apparently, that chart was a game-changer, but according to certain people, such as Daniel Henninger in The Wall Street Journal, not in a good way. He wrote:

Messrs. Piketty and Saez have produced the most politically potent squiggle along an axis since Arthur Laffer drew his famous curve on a napkin in the mid-1970s. Laffer’s was an economic argument for lowering tax rates for everyone. Piketty-Saez is a moral argument for raising taxes on the rich… Whatever its merits, their ‘Top 1%’ chart has become a totemic obsession in progressive policy circles.

Dan Ariely of Duke University says that 20% of the American population controls 84% of our country’s wealth. A Mother Jones article by Dave Gilson and Carolyn Perot makes an even more astonishing claim:

A huge share of the nation’s economic growth over the past 30 years has gone to the top one-hundredth of one percent, who now make an average of $27 million per household. The average income for the bottom 90 percent of us? $31,244.

Imagine that! The top .01% of Americans, a tiny minority, controls a mind-boggling amount of financial resources. The entire top 1% are doing pretty good, too — much better, by comparison, than the rest of us, who are scrounging around under the sofa cushions for lost pocket change. The top 1% of Americans controls about 40% of the nation’s wealth.

The richest 1% are also the private-jet-owning demographic, and they’re not hurting. That stuff about how nobody can afford private jets any more doesn’t make sense. Something else must be going on, something they aren’t telling us about. The people who run everything treat the 99% like mushrooms: They keep us in the dark and feed us manure. What are they keeping us in the dark about, now?

We are not begrudging the rich, no one is calling for tar and feathers for the people of Wall Street. We are not even calling for equity but we are calling for a little bit of fairness: living wages. As a moral question, it is only right. “Pay me what my labor is worth… at least enough, so as a laborer I can afford basic food clothing and shelter.” From a business perspective, it only makes sense. With 64% of all small businesses failing in the first four years, it would be a great business practice to stabilize your workforce.  Support the Universal Living Wage. We are the change.


Source: “The New Homeless: Aspiring Web Developer Ends Up on San Francisco’s Streets,” DailyFinance, 12/28/09
Source: “How the middle class became the underclass,” CNN Money, 02/16/11
Source: “The Obama Rosetta Stone,” The Wall Street Journal, 03/12/09
Source: “How Rich are the Super Rich?,” Mother Jones, 02/11
Image of Rise of the Super Rich is used under Fair Use: Reporting.


Media, Homeless Reality, and the Universal Living Wage

Rogerbstillz VideoIn 1.05-minute video “Homeless Guy gets Paid with Square,” an entrepreneurial fellow holds a sign that says, “Too lazy to work, too dum to hustel.” That’s possible. It might not go over in Lawrence, KS, but in a place like Santa Monica, CA, where both the panhandlers and the public are more laid-back, people will pay to be entertained, even by self-deprecating irony in a street person’s pitch.

The really unusual thing is, this guy’s cardboard sign is decorated with decals representing the major credit card companies. Reviewing the video, Courtney Boyd Myers says,

Homeless guy Mark aka ‘Madwhite’ is raking in a lot more dough now that he accepts Square, Visa, MasterCard or DiscoverCard transactions. In fact, he’s making 4 times what he normally makes… Once he has your information, he’ll email you to let you know what corners he’ll be frequenting next… Watch Mark discuss his mobile payment transactions below in this nearly unbelievable video…

Okay, the reason why it’s “nearly unbelievable” is because it shouldn’t be believed. It’s a fake, a satire perhaps, or just a thought experiment. But who could be blamed for being taken in, even for a minute? Why not? The world gets stranger every day. Sometimes it’s difficult to separate the real from The Onion or the political theater of the Yes Men.

At Rogerbstillz’s Blog, the maker of the video writes about the first time somebody used an iPhone to let him pay by credit card, and how it inspired his imagination, for better or worse:

Now I’m sure we have all been approached by a homeless person asking for change and we tell them ‘I don’t have any change/cash on me’ well what if they replied I accept credit cards lol What would your reply be?

The maker of the video hopes this will “go viral.” It’s obviously a plug for a mobile phone application that can accept credit card payments, and there’s nothing wrong with that, in and of itself. The software is real, and is said to be a convenience for sellers at farmers’ markets and many others.

Humor can sometimes be a redeeming virtue in media whose underlying assumptions we don’t really care for, but the video clip isn’t exactly funny. As a comment from “rictandag” points out,

it demeans homeless people and underappreciates greatly how mobile payments already are being used in the ‘developing world’ for social good.

Speaking of the demand for such a service, “rictandag” says,

For developing nations where access to other media has been limited, mobile is the great enabler… mobile is and will be their only access to the Internet and all the services that folk in the developed world now take for granted such as online banking, money transfer, email, up-to-date weather and news, commodity prices, commerce, government services.

These things are also true of the inner city homeless colonies and peripheral encampments in America. Another thing can be said too — no matter how helpful this technology may be to the homeless in our own country or to others throughout the world, it’s still dealing with the results of poverty and homelessness.

House the Homeless is interested in addressing the causes. The Universal Living Wage (UWL) intends to adjust the federal minimum wage and index it to the local cost of housing, throughout the nation. When properly adjusted, the ULW should ensure that anyone who works a 40-hour week can afford basic rental housing, and that means safe and decent as well as affordable, and includes utilities too. Of course, once the rent is paid, they should also be able to afford clothing and food. That’s what the Universal Living Wage is all about.


Source: “Homeless Guy Makes More Money Using Square and Mobile Payments,” The Next Web, 09/30/11
Source: “Homeless Gets Paid With Square/Box,” Rogerbstillz’s Blog, 09/28/11
Screen capture of Rogerbstillz Video is used under Fair Use: Reporting.


Three Cities – Conclusion

HomelessTwo years ago, the print publication High Country News published a significant story by Scott Bransford that spotlighted two California cities, Fresno and Ontario, and one Oregon city, Portland. This has been about the tent cities in each of those metropolitan areas, which Bransford described, and more recent events.

Bransford had more to say on the subject of housing:

Makeshift dwellings may not be the dream homes of yesteryear, but they are simple, affordable, and sustainable in their use of salvaged materials. With imaginative designers, they could help solve the present housing crisis, a faster alternative to the process of building shelters and low-income apartment complexes.

He mentioned Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon, as an example, describing it as…

… a community that can house up to 60 people. Founded in 2000 and now approved by the city, it’s considered a model by housing advocates worldwide.

One local resident described it as not a flophouse, but…

… a community place. You support the village by taking care of yourself as if you were on your own.

Bransford described the environment:

Beyond the check-in desk in the village’s security post, residents find a balance between the human needs for safety and personal freedom. Most are required to do at least 10 hours of community service a week—helping build or remodel homes, for example — but otherwise they set their own schedules.

This summer, about four months ago, Beth Slovic wrote for The Oregonian that Portland’s city council would extend the life of Dignity Village for one year. But the 10-year-old camp needs to clean up its act, according to officials.

The perceived problems were highlighted in a report, back in February of 2010, by a private consultant who investigated every aspect of the squatter village, including its “financial instability.” What was the first clue to the shaky economic basis of this community? It’s a settlement made of wooden huts that recently has replaced tents! Portland paid somebody for the momentous news that the place is financially unstable.

Here is a fascinating quotation, followed by some questions it raises:

Among other problems, [the investigation] found that the nonprofit camp’s method of electing residents to only one-year terms on a governing board slows fundraising and site improvements. The report, commissioned by the city, also noted the absence of programs to help residents move to permanent housing.

Number one: There is a subtle psychological nuance to consider. In a transitional housing camp, for anyone to seek office with a term of more than one year is to admit that they have accepted homelessness as a lifestyle, or, as some might say, become a professional homeless person. It seems as if the most mentally healthy position a tent city resident could take would be the determination to have a new address by this time next year.

Psychology aside, maybe the Dignity Village folks are onto something that the state’s political insiders don’t want to admit the truth of. Maybe no one should hold a position of power for more than a year. All the real work is done by underlings, anyway.

The present political system doesn’t seem to be working out very well. Maybe the answer is a term limit of one year across the board. Maybe everything would work much better, if no official could stick around long enough to develop a crony network and an entrenched system of corruption. Might be worth trying.

Number two: “… [T]he absence of programs to help residents move to permanent housing.” And this is whose fault? The residents’?

The Dignity Village neighborhood is charmingly described by Slovic as…

… the city-owned Sunderland Yard, next to a leaf composting facility between a state prison and Portland International Airport.

An unnamed male urban planner and designer posted some photos of Dignity Village less than two months ago at the website Tent City Urbanism. Currently, the website of Dignity Village itself is between hosts, and its page contains only an optimistic description of future plans.


Source: “Tarp Nation: Squatter Villages and Tent Cities in the Economic Crisis,” Utne Reader, 2009
Source: “Portland’s Dignity Village homeless camp set to get another year, at least, on city land,” OregonLive.com, 06/07/11
Source: “A View of Dignity Village,” Tent City Urbanism, 08/15/11
Image by born1945, used under its Creative Commons license.


The Economic-Violence Connection

So many children“This screams for Living Wages,” was the reaction of Richard R. Troxell on learning about a study about child abuse, conducted by Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and three other children’s hospitals, and we will return to that remark presently. The study in question had this objective:

To evaluate the rate of abusive head trauma (AHT) in 3 regions of the United States before and during an economic recession and assess whether there is a relationship between the rate of AHT and county-level unemployment rates.

It concluded:

The rate of AHT increased significantly in 3 distinct geographic regions during the 19 months of an economic recession compared with the 47 months before the recession. This finding is consistent with our understanding of the effect of stress on violence.

The entire report is available as a PDF download from Pediatrics magazine, and is explained in great detail by a press release sent out by the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. The study looked at rates of head trauma that were unmistakably of abusive origin, both before and after the recession, whose beginning it dates to December 2007, and found that…

The number of cases of abusive head trauma (shaken baby syndrome) rose from six per month before Dec. 1, 2007, to 9.3 per month after that date… Dr. Berger said that the impetus for the study was that in 2008, more patients at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC died from abusive head trauma than from non-inflicted brain injury.

The person cited above and quoted below is Rachel Berger, Medical Doctor and Master of Public Health, child abuse specialist and researcher at Children’s Hospital’s Child Advocacy Center. As lead author of the study, which was also covered by the Associated Press and CBS News, among other major media, Dr. Berger said,

Our results show that there has been a rise in abusive head trauma, that it coincided with the economic recession, and that it’s not a phenomenon isolated to our region but happening on a much more widespread level… To think that more children died from abusive head trauma than from any other type of brain injury that year is really remarkable and highly concerning.

Texas is one of the more influential states, for many reasons. People keep an eye on what happens in Austin, just like they pay attention to what happens in New York or San Francisco. Notions that start in Texas tend to spread. It’s such an interesting place, it has produced Molly Ivins, the incomparable writer on political matters, whose support of Texans experiencing homelessness is memorialized in Looking Up at the Bottom Line.

The great state of Texas produced Jim Adler, who founded a personal injury law firm and who has been a child advocate throughout his entire career. Among other activities on behalf of children, he has been a member of the Joint City/County Commission on Children for Houston and Harris County. Like many other professionals, he follows the news in the field of child health, and was moved to write about the study and its conclusion…

… that the recession has a punishing human cost: an increase in child abuse… The victims are usually the babies of low-income parents on hard times… What a shame that it is aimed at defenseless infants in the first months of life, a horror that this study reveals.

The statistic Adler cites says that 46 million Americans live in poverty. He suggests a “hidden epidemic of child abuse” that our awareness hasn’t caught up with yet, caused by the economic recession. He suggests that if families are not struggling so hard, the children are safer.

Adler hazards a guess that brain trauma is probably not the only type of child abuse that has increased, nor the only age group it has increased in. He says,

Until now, much of what we’ve seen on TV and the Internet or read in news magazines and newspapers has focused on the dollar costs of the recession, both in terms of personal budgets and government budgets. But in the background, little tears have been falling unheeded by reporters until now.

Richard R. Troxell has made a similar point about the connection between poverty and violence, and the apparent public obliviousness to that connection, saying,

The worse the economic situation is in the family, the greater likelihood of abuse. The further folks move away from poverty, the less likelihood of violence. I first researched this common sense issue years ago to find only one study on the topic.

Which brings us back to that other thing Richard said: “This screams for Living Wages.” In other words, the evidence about increasing child abuse is as good as an argument gets for ending homelessness. If anyone doubts the relationship between economics and family violence, they suffer from a delusion that Richard calls “Myth #26.”

Because of this myth, and at least 25 others, people are prevented from seeing the truth about the necessity for the Universal Living Wage. Please visit the Myths page and prepare to be astonished.

The Illustration (From Mother Goose):

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do.
She gave them some broth without any bread;
And whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.


Source: “Abusive Head Trauma During a Time of Increased Unemployment: A Multicenter Analysis,” Pediatrics, 09/19/11
Source: “Incidence of Child Abuse Skyrocketed During Recent Recession, Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC-led Study Finds,” chp.edu, 05/01/10
Source: “Recession increasing child abuse,” blog.chron.com, 09/22/11
Image by crimfants (Paul), used under its Creative Commons license


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Here’s a way to donate to your favorite cause, such as House the Homeless, just by shopping online. iGive’s literature says that since 1997, its members have donated $5,600,000 to more than 28,000 causes in this painless way. They promise “No pop ups, ads, toolbars, special search engine, or unwanted emails.” Check out iGive’s FAQ page (PDF) and Facebook Page, or just hop to the sign-up page and get started.


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.


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.


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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