America is full of empty houses, a circumstance that House the Homeless
has been exploring to figure out why people can’t live in them. A Cleveland, Ohio, man took that question from theory to reality when he began to practice urban homesteading six years ago. Mr. Hayes is, by all reports, a model neighbor who maintains the small abandoned house in which he lives as well as possible, considering that he is not allowed either water or power.
He gets around these strictures by paying a neighbor to use some electricity via an extension cord, and collects rainwater to filter for drinking and to fill the toilet tank. A disability check covers his modest living expenses and those of his two dogs. The building’s owner is not even a real person, but a corporate entity of whom reporter Mark Naymik says:
The company, whose leaders are nearly impossible to track down, owes tens of thousands in back taxes and penalties on its properties. The company owes $27,000 alone on the house Mr. Hayes is living in.
But Mr. Hayes pays property taxes, and keeps the place neat, and helps an elderly neighbor. He asked a city council member:
Would you, please, introduce an amendment to the ordinance so that qualified people may put to good use properties that are verifiably abandoned?
Why is there not such a law in every city across the country? Curious journalist Matt Lemas took the question a step farther and explored the notion of letting people live in the 77,000 empty buildings owned by the U.S. Government. In contrast to Mr. Hayes’s minimalist dwelling, many of these places even have electrical service. That’s right—regulations keep the power on to satisfy “safety requirements” for the structures, while actual humans live unsafely outside in the dark and cold. In fact, the upkeep for empty government-owned buildings costs taxpayers $1.7 billion per year.
The Philadelphia Stabilization Program
House the Homeless is not Richard R. Troxell’s first project. He has been involved in many other programs and initiatives to improve the lives of people experiencing homelessness. In the 1980s he lived in a Philadelphia neighborhood where a 55-block area held 110 abandoned houses, the overwhelming majority of which were built from stone or brick.
The first step of his group’s master plan was to prevent further deterioration by securing doors and windows with plywood to keep the weather out. They negotiated a deal with the union to have the roofs repaired, and put sturdy Lexan in the windows. Crews gutted the interiors, businesses donated paint, and kids recruited from the anti-graffiti program painted the exterior trim. The result would be a sturdy structure with the soft parts stripped down and prepped. Richard recalls:
A local bank agreed to offer a mortgage with rehab and wrap-around loans so the buyers could purchase the shells and have money to rehabilitate them.
His group kept the lawns mowed and transformed vacant lots into community gardens. They opened talks with city authorities and HUD, looking for support from the Community Development Block Grant program so potential homeowners with the fixer-upper mindset could afford mortgages and rehabilitation loans.
Progress was moving along nicely when the drug epidemic hit. The Philadelphia neighborhood, like many others all across the country, became a war zone, and the group realized that it had to move quickly to stabilize the neighborhood as it was rapidly being turned into fortified crack houses. Charged with the impossible responsibility to fully, completely, and permanently pacify the neighborhood, the rehabilitation group found that financial government support was about to be pulled. A further response by the fast-thinking neighbors enabled them to go forward with their stabilization plan.
Absent the crack epidemic, the basic plan was solid. At the time, the United Nations was researching best practices as part of the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless. Richard was urged to submit the plan, under the name of “Permanent Housing of Homeless People in Philadelphia,” and received special recognition for it.
The whole story is in his book, Looking Up at the Bottom Line, along with many other fascinating and instructive episodes.
Source: “Homeless man pays property taxes after moving into abandoned Cleveland home to fulfill homesteading dream,” Cleveland.com, 02/20/14
Source: “Could We House the Homeless in America’s 77000 Empty Government Buildings?,” RYOT.org, 2014
Image by w.marsh
Two years ago, when the previous national Point in Time survey was done, Popular Mechanics magazine went back to the survey before that one in order to take a close look at how homeless veterans were counted. The first answer was that the Department of Housing and Urban Development had contracted with ABT Associates to count the people experiencing homelessness in America, including veterans.
ABT project director Alvaro Cortes explained how the numbers are massaged. This is called “imputing,” and it must be done because HUD knows how sketchy those reported numbers really are. For instance, volunteer population counters didn’t ask street people if they were veterans. And for some reason, HUD wasn’t counting any vets staying in VA shelters as homeless.
The official count is made every two years over a single 24-hour period. Some people are not found. Some don’t want to be enumerated. Joe Pappalardo describes the situation as it stood when he started researching the story:
In 2010, the actual head count of homeless veterans registered 61,011 people…. To reflect the homeless veterans the PIT count missed, HUD “imputed”– that is, they estimated — the number and added 15,318 homeless veterans to the official 2010 statistic.
In 2010 (and before), HUD’s imputations determined the number of unsheltered homeless vets by taking the percentage of the homeless vets reported in CoC shelters and applying that to the total number of unsheltered homeless tallied in the PIT. This added thousands of presumed homeless veterans to the statistic. The unadjusted 2010 PIT determined that 36,389 vets were in shelters and 24,728 were on the street; the adjusted 2010 count gives 43,437 sheltered and 32,892 unsheltered.
As of 2010, ABT had developed at least 10 different ways to “impute.” This imputing, Cortes told the writer, is to “reach the most accurate count.” Here is a basic question: How can they possibly determine which imputing algorithm produces the most accurate count, without knowing the actual number as a basis for comparison? And if they knew the actual number, there would be no need to impute. It all seems very arbitrary.
Start with the less confusing part, the numbers of street people reported by volunteers. It’s understandable why some adjustment might be needed. Take the number from the actual count and hypothesize possible scenarios that would augment that number. Apply an “imputing” formula and extrapolate a new number.
But. Why did the number of veterans in shelters need to be “imputed”? You’d think those numbers would be accurate. How many veterans are in temporary quarters under the jurisdiction of the VA? Isn’t the military famously meticulous about record-keeping? Were accurate records of shelter visits not being kept? And if not, why not? Those figures are of immense importance to the well-being of so many Americans.
Another question. Are patients in VA hospitals, with no place to be discharged to, counted among the homeless? Because they quite possibly might be, the moment they get out of there. Counting homeless veterans isn’t easy, and it seems at times that the underlying reason for the project is not “how can we get an accurate count?” but “how can we fiddle with the statistics to get a number we can convincingly brand as accurate?”
Pappalardo asked some of the same questions and pursued the answers. A lot of places do yearly counts of the homeless, and in 2011, volunteers were told to ask each interviewee if they were “a member or a former member of the U.S. armed services.” He wrote:
The way HUD counted veterans living in VA-run homeless shelters changed from 2010 to 2011 too. Veterans Affairs runs about 6000 emergency shelter beds in the nation; before 2011, CoCs were adjusting their counts to include these VA programs by taking the average number of beds that were occupied on any given night — about 86 percent in 2010 — and applying that across the board to get an estimate for the whole country. But those numbers didn’t match up to the VA’s statistics, and so in 2011, HUD instructed the CoCs and VA groups to reconcile the list and give a full inventory of beds for homeless veterans.
Okay, reconciling two sets of numbers is a good first step. Next: the part that critics had trouble with.
Source: “How Does Washington D.C. Count America’s Homeless Vets?” PopularMechanics.com, 01/19/12
Image by Richard Masoner
Austin’s annual Homeless Memorial Sunrise Service is coming up on the 17th at 6:57 a.m. It will be held at Auditorium Shores, at South First and Riverside Drive (on the south side of Lady Bird Lake). For people anywhere in the area, that’s the important thing to know, so it’s right here at the top. The custom is for someone to read the names of all the homeless people who died in Austin in the past year. Last year 156 names were read.
Other cities with hearts hold similar events, of course, and there are poverty-related deaths in every large city. People who live on the streets, in makeshift camps and even in official shelters are vulnerable in so many ways. Malnutrition is almost a certainty, and starvation a possibility. Lack of food is considered the least newsworthy cause of death and suffering on the streets, with violent deaths and assaults attracting far more attention. For instance, Young Lee, co-founder of the Pinkberry frozen yogurt company, could be sentenced to as many as seven years for brutally beating a homeless man with a tire iron in Los Angeles. Allegedly, Lee also tried to intimidate witnesses. Depending on who tells the story, there may have been provocation, but the violence was certainly not unavoidable.
A recent headline reads, “It Is Illegal To Feed The Homeless In Cities All Over The United States.” What happened in Raleigh, N.C., this August when members of the Love Wins organization attempted to continue their years-long practice of bringing breakfast sandwiches and coffee to hungry people? An uncredited author relates the story:
On that morning three officers from Raleigh Police Department prevented us from doing our work, for the first time ever. An officer said, quite bluntly, that if we attempted to distribute food, we would be arrested.
Our partnering church brought 100 sausage biscuits and large amounts of coffee. We asked the officers for permission to disperse the biscuits to the over 70 people who had lined up, waiting to eat. They said no. I had to face those who were waiting and tell them that I could not feed them, or I would be arrested.
In Denver, a charming law “makes it illegal for anyone to sleep or sit and cover themselves against the elements with anything except their clothing.” The presence of a blanket turns the offense into unauthorized camping, punishable by a fine or up to a year in jail. Flagstaff, Ariz., made news when an undercover police officer with nothing better to do than harass the homeless arrested a 77-year-old woman who asked for bus money. As the Love Wins writer points out, more than 50 large cities in America now have anti-camping and/or anti-food sharing laws.
Sometimes the goal appears to be to get the homeless people to go away. Apparently the heartless politicians that are passing these laws believe that if the homeless can’t get any more free food and if they keep getting thrown into prison for “illegal camping” they will eventually decide to go somewhere else where they won’t be hassled so much.
In Boise, Idaho, the American Civil Liberties Union is engaged in a federal lawsuit, “arguing that the city’s recently-passed anti-panhandling ordinance was in violation of the First Amendment…” While the the mayor’s office characterizes the law as “carefully crafted to prevent aggressive solicitation while still ensuring the protection of all citizens’ right to free speech,” ACLU board member Erika Birch disagrees:
The ordinance criminalizes certain speech and expression and specifically restricts words that a person can use in the City of Boise, particularly in the downtown core area. It goes too far and violates constitutionally [protected] speech.
The venerable organization has also succeeded in having Michigan’s anti-begging law, which has been in place for 85 years, declared unconstitutional. TakePart.com adds:
Just this year, the ACLU sued on behalf of homeless men and women opposing begging bans in Indianapolis, Indiana and Worcester, Massachusetts, among other cities, also as violations of free speech and peacefully soliciting money in public. The ACLU of Colorado sued the city of Colorado Springs last November, and an injunction was granted to stop their downtown panhandling ban until it was repealed in March.
The city council of Columbia, S.C., got off on the wrong foot earlier this fall by unanimously voting that people experiencing homelessness should be collected and sequestered in a 240-bed camp outside of town. They would be unable to leave without permission, and the place didn’t even have cooking facilities when this ambitious plan was set to begin. If they didn’t want to go there, the alternative would be jail. But even the police, who would be responsible for the rounding up and guarding, backed away from implementation. The interim police chief, Ruben Santiago, stated:
Homelessness is not a crime. We can’t just take people to somewhere they don’t want to go. I can’t do that. I won’t do that.
So the new plan is to give people a van ride to the shelter and let them stay as long as a week, voluntarily, while workers try to sort out how they can best be helped. The city also promises to install public restrooms and trash cans, and to institute a homeless court.
Bonus Homeless Death Trivia
Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan, writing for Gizmodo, reported on a place whose existence is little known: a tiny island in New York City called Hart Island, “the largest publicly funded cemetery in the world.” In this modern-day potter’s field, there is one deceased person for every eight currently living New Yorkers. Their number is pretty darn close to a million, and a lot of them died homeless.
Currently run by the Department of Corrections, the mass graveyard is closed to the public and infamous for lousy record-keeping. If you were wondering whether prisoners bury the dead, the answer is yes. They do the final honors, presumably with the awareness that they will likely end up in this very same mass grave. A criminal record is practically a guarantee of lifelong unemployment. Furthermore, even working stiffs can’t afford places to live. A lot of both kinds of people end up homeless, so you do the math.
As a warning, the grim assignment is ineffective. No matter how sincerely a prisoner might intend to change his ways, the topography of society rarely permits a new start down a different path. Everyone chosen for this work detail has an excellent chance of winding up at the other end of a Hart Island shovel.
Source: “Pinkberry Co-Founder Convicted of Beating Homeless Man With Tire Iron,” Gawker.com, 11/08/13
Source: “It Is Illegal To Feed The Homeless In Cities All Over The United States,” JewsNews.co.il, 11/08/13
Source: “Urban Camping Ticket Issued to Woman for Trying to Stay Warm,” denverhomelessoutloud.org, 11/02/13
Source: “ACLU Sues City of Boise Over Anti-Panhandling Ordinance,” BoiseWeekly.com, 11/04/13
Source: “The Crime of Poverty: Some Homeless People Face Arrest for Asking for Help,” TakePart.com, 10/09/13
Source: “Columbia, South Carolina Rescinds Decision To Criminalize Homelessness,” HuffingtonPost.com, 09/09/13
Source: “What We Found at Hart Island, The Largest Mass Grave Site In the U.S.,” Gizmodo.com, 11/07/13
Image by David Trawin
Songwriters Lou and Peter Berryman wrote a song in 2004 whose message is, unfortunately, still spot-on today. The lyrics suggest an astonishing number of ways to become homeless, and really the best idea would be to go to this page and marvel over the whole list. (It’s the first item in the “Comments” section.)
But here’s a sample:
One runaway truck, one slip in the muck
One stretch of bad luck: Homelessness
One family feud, one litigious old prude
One long bad mood: Homelessness
One toaster too hot, one investment that’s not
One tiny blood clot: Homelessness
Earlier this month, Mark and Sharon Ames and their three daughters moved from a cramped apartment into a rental house they had found via Craigslist, in a community near Los Angeles. They paid the $2,000 move-in stake and signed a lease. Then, wrote Kennedy Ryan of KTLA5:
On Wednesday, a woman identifying herself as the real property manager showed up at the home with a police officer and told them they had to leave immediately because they were trespassing.
The officer gave the Ames family less than an hour to vacate and stood over them while they gathered their possessions. They signed into a motel, and KTLA5 kindly published their electronic contact information in case anyone was inspired to help.
Eleanor Goldberg of The Huffington Post picked up the story and added even more disheartening details. The real landlord gratuitously had the family’s van towed, and as anyone who has ever gone through the hassle and expense of reclaiming a vehicle from the California police knows, that alone can ruin your entire month.
The scam artist found the Ames couple easy to fleece, because they both face extra challenges in dealing with life. Mark is an amputee with a prosthetic leg, and Sharon is a PTSD-disabled veteran. Ironically, Mark has done volunteer service with an organization that helps the homeless. Through their own difficulties and life experience, they understand that things can’t always be done in the conventional way:
They fell for the scam in part, Mark said, because the fake landlord preyed on their vulnerabilities. She told them that a major car accident had left her disabled and unable to talk on the phone. The two dealt with the paperwork completely through email…
… And ended up homeless.
Ready for a laugh?
For comic relief, here is a quote from the archives of writer Heather Murdock:
A Rwandan government program to stop people living in thatched houses as part of a plan to alleviate poverty left hundreds of Batwa Pygmy families homeless…
But that kind of stuff only happens in “developing” third-world countries, not in an enlightened and progressive place like the United States. Right?
Remember Hurricane Katrina, and all the people it made homeless, and how some of them were loaned FEMA trailers to live in? By December of 2010, there were still 221 of these trailers in New Orleans, still occupied by people who as yet, for whatever reasons, had no other place to live. City officials called them a blight, and warned the residents to get out or pay heavy fines amounting to $500 per day. The following month, Julianne Hing reported:
The trailers were never designed to be permanent housing. Many who stayed in them years after the storm stuck around not out of choice; they had nowhere else to go. For many in New Orleans, such remains the case today… With these final FEMA eviction notices, [Mayor] Landrieu sends the message that he’s determined to beautify the city, if not address housing accessibility issues for people who most need help.
Hing quoted Lance Hill of the Southern Institute for Education and Research:
The blight eradication program, if not done correctly, can become a poor-person eradication program.
It wasn’t until a year later that the last trailer left New Orleans. In the meantime, another story came from the beleaguered city, of an employed 58-year-old woman named Barbara Gabriel who had lived in a Housing Authority apartment since 1975. Her errant nephew was arrested for selling drugs, and gave her address to the police. So the Housing Authority prepared to throw her out. Blair S. Walker reported:
‘I did not give him permission to use my address,’ says Gabriel… ‘He doesn’t live with me and he is not on my lease.’ Gabriel had been targeted under a ‘one strike and you’re out’ policy established by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1996. ‘One strike’ allows housing authorities to evict tenants following one drug-related offense.
Even if the legal tenant knew nothing about it and had nothing to do with it. So remember the chilling refrain of the Berrymans’ song:
And don’t forget, it’s sad but true
Next time around it could be you
Source: “A portrait of Connecticut’s homeless,” Courant.com, 02/09/11
Source: “Family of 5 Homeless After Craigslist Rental Scam,” KTLA.com, 09/03/13
Source: “Vet with PTSD, Amputee Husband and Their 3 Kids Homeless,” The Huffington Post, 09/13/13
Source: “Rwandan Government Program to End Thatched Housing Leaves Pygmies Homeless,” Bloomberg.com, 05/31/11
Source: “New Orleans Dumps FEMA Trailers — and Maybe the People in Them,” Truth-Out.org, 01/04/11
Source: “Eviction Threat, for No Reason,” AARP.org, 09/01/10
Image by Bart Everson.
California is one of the biggest states in the union, and a lot of young people are experiencing homelessness there. Thanks to reporters like Bethania Palma Markus in Whittier, word of their plight occasionally reaches the eyes and ears of the public.
When she included the life story of 20-year-old Steven Navarrette in an article, he had “aged out” of the child welfare system two years earlier. Actually, the official Department of Children and Family Services (DCHS) word for it is “terminated,” which has ominous overtones indeed. It should, because at the time, one out of every five “terminated” kids ended up homeless and two out of five tangled with the legal system, and often ended up in prison.
Those ratios are necessarily only estimates, because there was no requirement for the bureaucracy to follow up on the kids once they were “terminated.” A youth fortunate enough to land one of the few transitional housing spots could be kept track of for a while, but most kids were just in the wind, with no way to make a living and no support system, legal adults for whom the state no longer took responsibility.
Markus quoted Navarrette, who told her:
They used to talk about something called emancipated living and I was always really excited about that because I knew I wouldn’t be able to go live with my mom. It all sounded really nice but when it came down to it none of what they told me ever happened.
Around the same time, California passed a law allowing foster children to stay in their “placements” until age 21, presumably with the state paying their way, although at the same time the governor drastically cut the child welfare funds. Presumably, the foster parents would have some say in the arrangements too, and one has to wonder how many of them welcome the continuing presence of young people older than they are accustomed to dealing with.
Also around the same time, a federal regulation came into existence that would require the pertinent departments in every state to keep a record of what kind of “independent living services” they provided for kids aging out.
In Ohio, a pastor changed his own living quarters to a van and capitalized on the publicity this brought him by pointing out the need for transitional housing for 18-year-old former foster kids. The Salem Church of God has not yet been able to build any transitional housing, but its SOAR ministry persists in helping in other ways.
In Worcester, MA, many residents were distressed to learn that the local Teen Housing Task Force discovered 142 homeless youths in August of 2009, and counted 201 homeless youths in October of 2010, representing a 48% increase. In other words, one town’s population of homeless kids, some as young as 13, almost doubled in just over a year.
Journalist Lee Hammel continued the tradition by writing up the stories of an 18-year-old girl and a 19-year-old boy, in response to public interest in the question of how many unhoused young people were out there, whether because they had been released from the foster care system or thrown out by their parents, or whatever.
The Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts awarded $120,000 to a coalition of 20 state and local agencies. This was a “planning grant” — not to actually do anything about the situation, but to identify the causes of transition-age homelessness, and to analyze the available resources, with the expectation of receiving more funds once those tasks were done.
Maurie R. Bergeron of The Compass Project told the reporter:
There’s no saying how the money will be used here for homeless youths from 17 to 24 until the planning study is completed.
Since foster children were in the news anyway, a reporter took the opportunity to dish up a tidbit about Minnesota politician Michele Bachmann:
Foster children, who automatically qualify for Medicaid benefits, make up a tremendously disproportionate amount of its spending, especially on mental health services. Bachmann likely understands these difficulties better than anyone: all 23 of her foster children were teenage girls suffering from psychiatric disorders. In addition, her husband’s therapy clinic has taken in over $137,000 in Medicaid funds to help treat low-income patients.
Despite whatever agenda might have fueled the research, the important thing to note here is how foster children “make up a tremendously disproportionate amount of its spending, especially on mental health services.” And still… one out of five homeless, two out of five involved with the corrections system. The California solution of changing the emancipation age from 18 to 21 has no doubt benefited some young people, and hopefully will help many more to get their feet solidly under them before venturing forth into the world.
Unfortunately, this solution doesn’t do a darn thing for the taxpayers. With any individual child, it could go either way. For those who experience homelessness, public funds will be involved one way or another, especially if the youth happens to become involved with the legal system. For those who stay in the foster system for another year or two or three, before the court’s jurisdiction over them is terminated, the costs of routine care and medical care are still billed to the taxpayers.
These young people need training and preparation, and when they are turned loose, they — just like everybody else — need jobs that pay a living wage. Let’s work on that.
Source: “Rampant homelessness in former foster children yet to be addressed,” Whittier Daily News, 11/27/10
Source: “Outreach,” Salem Church of God
Source: “Increase in homeless youth in Worcester raises alarm,” Telegram.com, 02/12/11
Source: “Michele Bachmann’s Foster Care Contradiction,” TPM, 07/06/11
Image by Elvert Barnes.