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A Berkeley Tale

house-in-berkeleyBerkeley, California, is one of the most progressive, ornery, and distinctive cities in the USA. This time last year, City Councilwoman Linda Maio faced some conflict over Ohlone Park, a three-block-long urban oasis that she helped create 42 years before.

In recent times, however, Ohlone had become a temporary haven for people experiencing homelessness. Maio followed the lead of her constituency and promoted the introduction of new, stricter city ordinances against camping in parks, and against placing personal property on public sidewalks.

Also included was the old favorite, “urinating and defecating in the parks.” When will municipal officials figure it out? Their refusal to provide restrooms does not discourage homelessness, but only punishes individuals. What that refusal does, however, is threaten public health in very real and scary ways.

To Maio’s credit, she did encourage the city to deploy mobile showers, and devote some storage facilities to people’s stuff. Still, she found herself accused by a fellow council member (and a portion of the public) of criminalizing poverty and homelessness.

Rachel Swan wrote this for SFGate.com:

“We want people to get a little more connected with social mores,” Maio said, emphasizing that the laws are small, and so are the city responses for breaking them: an initial warning followed by a citation…

Nonetheless, the new laws prompted strong opposition in Berkeley, where housing activists camped out in front of City Hall the night before the council meeting…

The new laws will take effect Jan. 1 but will not be enforced until after Berkeley installs public storage bins, and there are no plans set for that yet.

Councilman Kriss Worthington objected to prosecuting, fining or jailing people who have no money anyway, for minor offenses. But the new ordinances were approved. Swan wrote of a local sympathy protester:

One woman who camped outside City Hall told the council that she woke up with a stark realization of what it means to be homeless. “There is no restroom,” she said at the meeting.

At the same time in West Berkeley, a lot of people were living in campers and RVs parked along city streets. Again, human waste was a problem. But rather than handle this in a mature, adult way, cities all over America continue their attempts to criminalize natural functions. It always comes back to the essentials.

Meanwhile tension buillt in other areas, because the Super Bowl tourist influx into San Francisco was on the horizon, and the mayor promised the corporate suits that the Embarcadero district would be purged of unsightly beggars. Some of the displaced people could reasonably be expected to relocate across the Bay.

House the Homeless asked longtime Berkeley resident Ace Backwords how the past year has been. Here’s what he said:

The homeless scene is always in a state of flux. It changes day to day, month to month, year to year. But the basic game seems to stay the same. One week the cops will be crunching you for one thing. The next week its OK to do that but they’re crunching you for something else. One week is OK to hang out on one side of the sidewalk. The next week they kick us off that side and say we gotta hang out on the other side. And the next week they reverse it again. Round and round it goes.

Getting back to Ohlone Park, and a last quotation from Swan:

One resident, Lynn Barrow, wrote that her dog had gotten sick after walking through one of the Ohlone Park encampments and had to be taken to the emergency room. “They tested his urine, and it contained marijuana and meth,” Barrow’s letter said.

Ms. Barrow does not appear to have divulged why her dog was running, loose and out of control, through the public park where homeless people were settled. It would be unfair to speculate on the reason, but fair enough to hope that no local person would do something like that for the purpose of intimidation, to alarm and threaten the people in the tents.

Reactions?

Source: “Berkeley’s homeless feel squeezed as neighbors seek clampdown,” SFGate.com, 11/21/15

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School-Age Kids Experiencing Homelessness

kids-getting-off-school-busLast week, House the Homeless noted that, across America, some 3% of public school students are experiencing homelessness. Sometimes it seems like we mainly hear about happenings in New York and California, because they are the big states representing the East Coast and the West Coast, so they appear important. Today, we look at some news stories, all published within the past year, from states that don’t get as much attention.

This very recent one says it all in the headline: “There are 29,537 homeless kids in Arizona public schools.” Just for reference, the smallest-size football stadiums that Wikipedia bothers to list are 30,000-seaters, so these kids would just about fill one of those. Journalist Michael Hughes characterizes these children as…

[…] young outcasts who, through no fault of their own, have entered a world of motels, doubled-up quarters with relatives, a life on the streets or emergency shelter.

Also, before the recession, there were fewer than 20,000. The greedy and irresponsible financial tricksters who caused that meltdown have a lot to answer for, and the consequences of their misdeeds will linger for generations to come. Safe, affordable housing is the very bedrock necessary for an educated and conscious population.

While the Arizona homeless student total only increased by 50% since the recession, another state has seen a 100% increase. “Number enrolled in Arkansas schools doubles in 10 years,” the headline says. That may sound like an impressive rate of increase over a decade, but in the city of Lexington, Kentucky, it took only three years for the homeless student population to double.

A study by the Lexington Fair Housing Council determined, to no one’s surprise, that “elementary schools with the highest percentage of homeless students were ranked much lower in overall academic performance.” The Fayette County Schools Superintendent expressed disappointment that the Council’s report didn’t offer more answers, saying:

Speaking not as a superintendent, but as an individual who experienced housing insecurity and food insecurity as a child, I implore the council to look at the root causes of homelessness in our community and develop bold recommendations to create a safety net for our families and children.

However, the director of the Homeless Prevention and Intervention Office told the press that although he and the others in the homeless provider community had tried to meet with Superintendent Manny Caulk, “that meeting has not yet happened.” No doubt this same scenario of unscheduleable meetings is being played out all over the country in large cities and small towns.

Kentucky as a whole, incidentally, could fill another of those 30,000-seat football arenas with homeless students. But the state of Washington has them beat, with 35,000 enrolled in public schools, and as for how many others are wandering around, unbeknownst to authorities, that is anybody’s guess.

We have all heard of the McKinney-Vento Act and how much it is supposed to help. But…

Public schools in Kent get no money from McKinney-Vento because the available funds are distributed through a competitive grant process… That means the district spends “thousands and thousands” out of pocket for staff and transportation required by the act.

Just 24 of 295 school districts in Washington received McKinney-Vento money for a three-year period starting in 2013.

In Boston, Massachusetts, during this school year nearly 4,000 students are without homes. With the city’s average apartment rent at $2,300, this is not an astonishing outcome. Nor is it likely to change any time soon, unless serious action is taken.

Obviously, there are quite a few more states we didn’t even get to today. An important aspect to remember is, these tallies don’t even include “unaccompanied youth” who should be enrolled in school, but aren’t. They are mostly, as the old expression has it, “in the wind.” They are easily ignored now, but during the decades of adulthood that lie before them, far too many of those kids will give us reason to regret not looking out for them or taking better care of them.

Reactions?

Source: “There are 29537 homeless kids in Arizona public schools,” AZCentral.com, 09/04/16
Source: “Homeless kids fly under radar; number enrolled in Arkansas schools doubles in 10 years,” ArkansasOnline.com, 09/26/16
Source: “Student homelessness in Lexington nearly doubles over three years,” Kentucky.com,08/07/16
Source: “With 35,000 homeless youth in public schools, state lawmakers seek money to help,” SeattleTimes.com, 02/15/16
Source: “Nearly 4,000 students are homeless as start of school approaches,” WCVB.com, 08/15/16
Photo credit: K.W. Barrett via Visualhunt/CC BY

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For Children and Youth, a Couch Is Not a Home

leith-walk-elementary-schoolThe number of public school students experiencing homelessness has doubled since the recession, over a number that was already too large. Now, an estimated 3% of public school kids are homeless, which is of course an average. Depending on the city and state, it varies wildly.

These words are from Lyndsey Layton and Emma Brown:

The impact is profound on public schools, which struggle to try to address the needs of homeless children. Teachers often find themselves working not only to help children learn but also to clothe them, keep them clean and counsel them through problems — including stress and trauma — that interfere with classroom progress.

Transportation is another issue that teachers find themselves dealing with. School districts have different rules about who has to be taken where, and when and how. The parents of homeless children may not have a car, and anyway they are expected to be either working or looking for work. Kids need school supplies. They need a table somewhere to do their homework on. Mostly, they need stability and peace of mind.

The Homeless Children and Youth Act was introduced in January of 2015. Its point was to expand the official Dept. of Housing and Urban Development’s definition of homelessness on behalf of an estimated million kids and their families, whose lives would be affected. The website of California Senator Dianne Feinstein describes the proposed legislation in detail.

Access to federal housing programs is complicated by confusion among governmental entities over what constitutes homelessness. Sen. Feinstein gives two examples of the results, applicable to her own state and another:

In California, 259,656 children experienced homelessness last year, while HUD counted only 25,094 households that included at least one child as homeless. Due to the narrow HUD definition, only one in 10 homeless children in California is eligible for federal housing programs.

In Ohio, 23,748 children experienced homelessness last year, while HUD counted only 4,714 households that includes at least one child as homeless. Due to the narrow HUD definition, only one in five homeless children in Ohio is eligible for federal housing programs.

One in five is a best-case scenario? That’s crazy. And it doesn’t even mean the family will find housing — only that it is eligible to apply. The National Network for Youth website is a trove of information about the Homeless Children and Youth Act, and their page includes simple instructions for writing to the appropriate members of congress.

One interesting bullet point states that the HCYA…

Prohibits HUD from overriding local communities. Local service providers are the best equipped to evaluate which homeless populations have the greatest unmet needs.

Basically, one aim of the bill is to encourage the federal government to trust local agencies and take their word for it that someone is homeless. Briefly, some of the other sections concern data collection, reporting requirements, and transparency; and simplification of documentation needed to prove eligibility for housing programs.

That documentation requirement is frightening. Imagine a woman going back to the violent husband she escaped from at great risk. “Excuse me, would you mind writing a letter stating that we left because you brutalized me and two of our three children?” Good luck with that.

To learn exactly and in detail why the current rules are problematic, this page explains it fully. We learn from the U.S. Congress website that, despite the fact that 400 organizations are on board with support of the bill, the last action taken was its referral to the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs in January of last year.

In April of 2015 the U.S. Senate Appropriations Transportation, Housing & Urban Development Subcommittee held a hearing on HUD’s Efforts to Prevent & End Youth Homelessness, at which singer Cyndi Lauper related how she was a homeless teen who found a doorway back into society through a youth hostel that helped her earn a high school diploma.

She also said:

We can end youth homelessness in America, but we have to get to the root of the problem. Our country must invest in preventing kids from becoming homeless in the first place, and this is an area of focus that has largely been ignored. That means helping families. It means fixing our broken child welfare system, our flawed juvenile justice system, and our schools. Each one of those places can be a doorway to homelessness or to a better future.

The “Kids 4 Kids Sake” video

House the Homeless urges everyone to watch the video “Kids 4 Kids Sake” and share it with the candidates who are running for president! In fact, please do what you can to bring it to the attention of all candidates for everything, anywhere. Tweet it, share on via social media, contact the candidates directly, and ask your friends to do the same.

Reactions?

Source: “Number of US homeless students has doubled since before the recession,” WashingtonPost.com, 09/14/15
Source: “Homeless Children and Youth Act: A Couch is Not a Home,” NN4yYouth.org, undated
Source: “Bill Introduced to Expand Housing Programs to 1 Million Children, Families,” Senate.gov, 01/27/15
Source: “Current Law and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Regulations Deny Homeless Children and Youth the Help They Need Now,” HelpHomelessKidsNow.org, 02/03/15
Source: “Homeless Children and Youth Act of 2015,” Congress.gov, 01/27/15
Source: “Written Testimony of Cyndi Lauper,” Senate.gov, 04/29/15
Photo credit: Maryland GovPics via Visualhunt/CC BY

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Stay Current With Veterans, Traumatic Brain Injury, and Kids

us-marinesHouse the Homeless announces the release of a very important document, titled “Traumatic Brain Injury — A Protocol to Help Disabled Homeless Veterans within a Secure, Nurturing Community.” This publication is a joint effort born of the collaboration between House the Homeless, Millennium Health Centers, the Warrior Angels Foundation, and Community First! Village.

After a series of e-mails and lengthy conference calls, initiated by House the Homeless, Inc., we have formed a team that shares the philosophy that, quite possibly, a significant percentage of people experiencing homelessness got there due to a Traumatic Brain Injury. Up until now, these individuals may never have previously been asked to connect a past head injury (or a series of them) to the symptoms of anger, alcoholism, Parkinson’s Disease, Bi-Polar disorder, bad decision making, and other manifestations of TBI.

“Traumatic Brain Injury – a Protocol” descriptive pages about all four organizations, along with the 2016 Traumatic Brain Injury Survey conducted by House the Homeless, and a short history of how the Homeless Veterans in Action project came together to…

[…] create a first of a kind,ongoing program for ten homeless veterans to specifically treat their Traumatic Brain Injury thus combining the two populations of both veterans and people experiencing homelessness.

Here is a short excerpt from Dr. Mark Gordon’s segment of the paper:

Common to all degrees of head trauma (and body trauma) is the unforeseen development of hormone deficiencies…

Studies have shown that the use of conventional medications (antidepressants, anti-anxiety, anti-seizure, and antipsychotic) do not improve upon the underlying cause creating the symptoms associated with Traumatic Brain Injury (Post-Concussion Syndrome) because they do nothing to increase the missing hormones. Psychotherapy does nothing to increase deficient hormones; it only encourages you to accept a poor quality of life and to move on.

Another useful publication is the article “Survey Links Brain Injury to Medical Causes of Homelessness To be Addressed with Hormone Therapy — Follow Up.”

To get up to speed on this problem and need for this planned intervention, we also recommend:

Kids

For NationalReview.com, Julie Gunlock described that changes that have been taking place in public schools, which she sees as an intensification of the “already pronounced trend of shifting child-care responsibilities from family, friends, and, most of all, parents to schools and government-sponsored programs.” She regrets that some children spend 10 to 12 hours a day at school, because schools have by necessity become child-welfare centers, with programs both before and after classes, and free or reduced-price meals.

Based on an instinctive and often justifiable distrust of the government, Gunlock wonders why parents are okay with this. But more than likely, they are not. It’s just that everybody is working all the time, trying to make enough to either keep a roof over themselves or get a roof. Friends and family members are tapped out. A lot of people just can’t take on any more responsibility.

Here is a significant quotation from New America’s Annie Lieberman:

High-quality early childhood education programs can cushion the negative effects of homelessness, providing children with stability, a safe environment, and helping them develop the skills needed to succeed in school and in life.

House the Homeless urges everyone to watch the video “Kids 4 Kids Sake” and share it with the candidates who are running for president! In fact, please do what you can to bring it to the attention of all candidates for everything, anywhere. Tweet it, share on via social media, contact the candidates directly, and ask your friends to do the same.

Reactions?

Source: “Schools: The New Social-Welfare Centers,” NationalReview.com, 10/09/14
Source: “Reaching the Most Vulnerable Children: A Look at Child Homelessness,” NewAmerica.org, 10/10/14
Image by U.S. Department of Agriculture US — Marine Corps

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Long-Lasting Effects on the Youngest Victims of Homelessness

kid-in-the-classroomAt the end of 2013, it was estimated that around eight million children had been adversely affected by the mortgage foreclosure epidemic that was such a prominent feature of the 2008-09 depression. By now, three years later, we trust that at least some of them are settled in housed circumstances that, if not permanent, are at least temporarily stable.

But it is the nature of an economic catastrophe to have far-reaching consequences. Sometimes the dominoes fall slowly, and it is totally possible that a percentage of families who were hard-hit by the recession managed to hold on for a few years, and then lost their grip, step by painful step. It is in fact quite likely that the disaster is just now catching up.

According to Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania, an increase in admissions due to suspected or actual abuse was linked to the increase in delinquent mortgages. That is an example of one of the more extreme effects of the stress caused by societal upheaval. Each family has its own unique history and set of priorities, and no doubt many separations and divorces happened that otherwise would not have.

When a home is lost through inability to pay either mortgage or rent, devastation comes in a thousand different forms. Couples who were already at risk of breaking up figure, why not take advantage of this to go ahead and divorce?

Sometimes separations are involuntary. The wife’s parents might be willing to give house room to their daughter and a grandchild or two, but certainly don’t want to put up with that son-in-law they never liked anyway. Or the father might leave, trying to find work in another state, or at least hoping that the mother and kids will be more eligible for social services if he’s not around.

Greg Kaufmann wrote this for BillMoyers.com:

A single mother must apply for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which in Wisconsin is $653 per month no matter the size of the family. She then must meet a work requirement, arrange for child care, buy furniture and pay for utilities, among other challenges. If her child is sick and she stays home from work, she is sanctioned by the TANF program. She might lose her $653 assistance, consequently fall behind on rent and begin her slide towards homelessness again.

In any case, being a homeless parent is hard, and the kids don’t have it easy either. By mid-2014, school districts tallied up twice as many students experiencing homelessness, as compared with pre-recession America. For The Huffington Post, Ann Brenoff identified several of the difficulties they face.

Health and hygiene are major problems. There is little opportunity to soak in a bubble bath and play with rubber duckies. In some places, people are lucky enough to have access to free clinics, along with the likelihood of catching some new contagion in the waiting room.

Nutrition is iffy even for housed kids whose parents bring home paychecks. Parents don’t have time to carefully shop for organic ingredients and cook meals from scratch, and kids resist such conscientious attempts anyway, preferring to scrounge junk food any way they can.

On the subject of eating, Brenoff mentions an awkward fact that housed people probably never think about. When the annual food donation drive comes around, they generously donate canned goods without wondering what pot the family living in a car will empty that can into and what stove they will cook it over.

When a family is homeless, kids may subsist on public-school free lunches and little else. The writer hopes they will at least be issued a lunch card that looks the same as their classmates, and goes on to say:

If their family doesn’t have a post office box, it’s hard to mail home their report card. They don’t want everyone to know if the PTA paid for them to go on the class field trip. School projects that involve a trip to the crafts store for supplies pose a special burden on their families who can’t afford it. Participating in sports sounds great, but soccer cleats and baseball uniforms aren’t exactly in the budget. A lost textbook is a problem for a regular kid; a lost textbook is a catastrophe for a homeless kid.

Mail, incidentally, can be problematic. The US Post Office still has General Delivery, but it may be limited to only one facility in an area. A person needs a picture ID to apply, and to pick up mail, and needs to re-apply every month. There are no free PO boxes for individuals. To rent a PO box or a box at a commercial mail receiving agency requires two forms of ID, one with a picture and another with a physical address, so it may be doable if a person is prepared to lie and can do so successfully, and if a box is even available. Rent is paid 3 or 6 months in advance. Some people receive mail at a shelter or drop-in center, but there is no guarantee that any agency will offer this service.

On the academic side, homeless kids have a notoriously hard time keeping up. On the social side, forming friendships can be difficult or even impossible. But those challenges are subjects for another day.

House the Homeless urges everyone to watch the video “Kids 4 Kids Sake” and share it with the candidates who are running for president! In fact, please do what you can to bring it to the attention of all candidates for everything, anywhere. Share via social media, contact the candidates directly, and ask your friends to do the same.

Reactions?

Source: “America’s Homeless Kids Crisis,” TheAtlanticCities.com, 11/01/13
Source: “America is Ignoring Homeless Families,” BillMoyers.com, 04/21/13
Source: “7 Things About Homeless Kids You Probably Didn’t Know,” Huffingtonpost.com, 05/25/14
Source: “508 Recipient Services,” USPS.com, 07/11/16
Photo credit: www.audio-luci-store.it via Visualhunt/CC BY

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Policies About Children Need to Change

student-with-ipadMany economic incentives exist that could inspire voters to greater efforts toward ending homelessness, if only they realized and understood the potential. Writing for the St. Cloud Times in Minnesota, Stephanie Dickrell analyzed some of advantages that our society could gain by taking a different approach to the plague of homelessness.

The main concern is with children, because growing up in chaos has a number of long-term effects on the body, mind and spirit. The bill comes due later, in terms of social service programs. The safety nets that America has put in place for disabled people and unemployable people and vulnerable people like children have never been more needed. Law enforcement costs don’t have to be so high, but they will continue to grow as long as police are occupied with the never-ending task of chasing street people from one vacant lot to the next.

Hospitals lose a ton of money treating indigent patients. It costs a lot to send firefighting equipment and personnel to take care of relatively minor matters, meanwhile endangering the homes and businesses they are meant to protect. The taxpayers shell out fortunes to keep people in jail who really don’t need to be there. The body politic is hemorrhaging money from every pore, when by merely taking the same amount and allotting it differently, it could avoid enormous expenditures down the road.

Dickrell gives this example:

If Central Minnesota programs can make nine homeless youth self-sufficient by age 20, they save the equivalent of one year’s spending on services for 151 homeless youth.

That sounds like a reasonable tradeoff. The math was done by Steven Foldes, a University of Minnesota economist, with the aim of discovering the “excess lifetime cost,” or the amount that a homeless kid can cost society between birth and death. Dickrell says:

He looked at a wide range of expenses: lost earnings, lost tax payments, public expenditures and victim costs for crime, welfare costs, public costs for health care, education and job training and public support of housing…

The lifetime excess cost to society will be about $93 million.
However, homeless population estimates are considered by experts to be low. Foldes estimates the costs may be about four times greater.

In contrast, look at what happens when a mother wants her boy (who loves school) to have a good education so he won’t grow up to be a burden on society. Remember Tanya McDowell, who was charged in 2011 with grand larceny and conspiracy to commit first-degree larceny, for registering her son at the wrong school? She took a plea bargain, but under the conditions set forth in something called the Alford Doctrine, meaning that the accused does not admit guilt, but does admit that she or he does not have what it would take to win the case.

McDowell was sentenced to five years in prison, which ran concurrently with another five-year sentence for an unrelated crime. Although regretting her participation in the other matter, she told the judge that, for trying to get her son a better education, she had no regrets.

Dr. Yvonne M. Vissing is an expert in the area of homeless children and youth, who works with the National Coalition for the Homeless. She founded the Center for Child Studies at Salem State University and wrote Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind: Homeless Children and Families in Small-Town America.

Dr. Vissing believes that policies and practices that marginalize, embarrass and stigmatize kids need to be changed. No children should be vulnerable to abuse, exploitation or neglect. The mindset dictating that some children are more worthy than others of care and help must be eliminated wherever it is found. Bureaucracies need to be called to account, and educational inequities must be cured. Parents must not be forced into positions where, at best, there might be two equally awful choices; where the question of the “best choice” isn’t even on the table.

House the Homeless urges everyone to watch the video “Kids 4 Kids Sake” and share it with the candidates who are running for president! In fact, please do what you can to bring it to the attention of all candidates for everything, anywhere. Share via social media, contact the candidates directly, and ask your friends to do the same.

Reactions?

Source: “Child homelessness can have long-term consequences,” SCTimes.com, 06/04/16
Source: “Homeless Mother Who Sent Six-Year-Old Son To Better School In The Wrong Town Sent To Prison For Five Years,” CounterCurrentNews.com, 09/04/16
Source: “Yvonne. M. Vissing,” SalemState.edu, undated
Source: “Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind: Homeless Children and Families in Small-Town America,” uky.edu, undated
Photo credit: Brad Flickinger via Visualhunt/CC BY

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Homeless Kids of Grade-School Age

group-hug-kids During the 2012-13 school year, America’s homeless student total was estimated to be 1,258,182. In the same year, the amount of money available for the SNAP (“food stamps”) program was cut, and WIC (for mothers and small children) lost $354 million in funding. According to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, around 19.3 million families were eligible for government assistance, although only 4.6 million families were receiving any.

Children experiencing homelessness fall into three major categories — the infant and preschool group; the grade-school age kids; and older kids in middle school and high school, who have a different set of issues. In this post, we look at what has been going on recently with the grade-school crowd.

Home is a concept

Hundreds of thousands of children live in places that only marginally qualify as homes, and some not even as dwelling places. Kids are in motels and SRO hotels; campgrounds, trailer parks, chain store parking lots, rented storage cubicles, sheds, rooftops, tunnels, garages, trucks, and cars.

Many families “double up” with relatives or friends in situations that are uncomfortable for everyone. People open their hearts, but it is never easy to share one’s own limited space for any length of time, and these stopgap measures are sometimes offered grudgingly. Interpersonal friction is inevitable, especially around financial matters. People may feel exploited or abused.

Those who share most generously tend to not own the buildings they live in. Often, letting people stay violates the lease and puts the helpers at risk for eviction, which adds another layer of anxiety with the possibility that hosts and guests will all end up sleeping rough. Painful as it is to say, that may be a blessing in disguise, because apparently the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has required for several years that people literally have to be on the streets to qualify for assistance.

The restrictive HUD definition created what journalist Paul Boden calls a cruel and vicious cycle. Actually, it is more of a Catch-22 or double-bind (a situation in which neither choice is correct) which he sums up neatly:

Once families lose their homes, they scramble for any place to stay. If they sleep in a vehicle or remain on the streets (which is a criteria for being considered homeless), they risk being categorized as “unfit parents” and losing their children to public agencies. Hoping to avoid that, families will stay with other people, often in unstable and unhealthy situations which render them ineligible for homeless assistance.

The ills of society

It seems that parents can be charged with abuse and “child endangerment” if there is no roof over their kids’ heads, and what is that if not the criminalization of homelessness? Leaving that aside, consider the effects on the country as a whole, when so many children spend their formative years in chaotic situations. What happens when a whole population of kids enter kindergarten with their development already hindered by inadequate nutrition and toxic stress?

A study collaborated on by researchers from four universities determined that poverty puts such stress on the brain that IQ scores drop by 13 points. Journalist Abbie Lieberman wrote:

The National Center on Family Homelessness reports that “Homeless children are eight times more likely to be asked to repeat a grade, three times as likely to be placed in special education classes, and twice as likely to score lower on standardized tests.”

Grade-school children who are experiencing homelessness might also have experienced violence, or at least witnessed it, in their neighborhood or living place. They are likely to need dentistry or other medical attention, and may have spent time in foster homes. According to a 2015 study, 25% of homeless kids need mental health services, which really shouldn’t come as a surprise.

If a family takes refuge with older and/or more solvent relatives, there is bound to be a certain amount of “I told you so” talk or some other form of verbal abuse. Kids see their mother and/or father being treated like a loser, and that can’t be helpful.

Also, it is to be hoped that the parent is extra vigilant, to make sure the kids don’t break or ruin something in the home that takes them in. Out of their own anxiety and defensiveness, they might become more strict. Even when everyone in the shared space is totally polite, children are sensitive enough to be emotionally damaged by the awareness that people would be happier not to have them around.

House the Homeless urges everyone to watch the video “Kids 4 Kids Sake” and share it with the candidates who are running for president! In fact, please do what you can to bring it to the attention of all candidates for everything, anywhere. Share via social media, contact the candidates directly, and ask your friends to do the same.

Reactions?

Source: “Enrollment of Homeless Students Hits New Record in US Schools,” EdWeek.org, 09/23/14
Source: “The feds are redefining homelessness to make it disappear,” StreetRoots.org, 08/12/14
Source: “Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function,” ScienceMag.org, 08/30/18
Source: “Reaching the Most Vulnerable Children: A Look at Child Homelessness,” NewAmerica.org, 10/10/14
Source: “Homeless Children’s Stress Is Taking Its Toll; 25% Need Mental Health Services,” MedicalDaily.com, 02/19/15
Photo credit: SFU — University Communications via Visualhunt/CC BY

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Miami’s Pit Stops — a Tale of One City

portable-bathrooms-miamiAlert readers of House the Homeless blog have noticed that toilets have been a theme. We haven’t even gotten into showers or laundry, because there is so much to say about the most basic of sanitary facilities.

Latrines, and the means to wash hands after using them, are the building blocks of civilization. Toilets are a basic necessity and people experiencing homelessness need them.

Aside from the human suffering and indignity, and the menace to public health posed by a lack of toilets, there is another serious issue. In a societal/cultural/political absurdity that is indistinguishable from actual insanity, people are acquiring criminal records for public elimination when there is literally no other choice. Let’s take a close look at how one American city is working on the problem.

The backstory

Last year, Miami, Florida, experienced a long period of civic unrest over toilets. Attempting to shame the Dade Homeless Trust into using some of its $55 million of public money for a public restroom project, Downtown Development Authority board member Jose Goyanes made a video titled “Homeless Urine & Feces in Miami May 2015.” The DDA also prepared an infographic — a map of the downtown area with little feces icons in appropriate places.

The unimpressed administrator wouldn’t even look at the presentation, and scolded Mr. Goyanes for assuming “that the Homeless Trust is responsible for anything and everything involving homeless individuals.” Ron Book, who has run the Trust since Hector was a pup, told reporters:

We are not going to be putting toilets or showers in downtown Miami… We’ve looked at this several times over the last 10 to 12 years and we are just not doing it.

These folks think I’m supposed to divert scarce resources and be on poop patrol and clean up after homeless folks. My priority is homes and getting people off the streets, not providing poop stations.

In Book’s world, a $55 million budget is “scarce resources.” Also amazing is that such a high-ranking official believes that people only do one thing in a restroom.

Book’s theory, which is no doubt eagerly adopted by officials in other cities, goes like this:

If I’m making it easier for them to be on the streets, then I’m making it more difficult for my outreach staff to coax chronic homeless people off of the streets.

Mainly, this view seems counterproductive. When the first thing a person has to do on arrival at a job interview is ask for directions to the restroom, what kind of a start is that? Maybe if people had some basic amenities to work with they wouldn’t need to depend on the Trust for additional help.

Meanwhile, because the lack of bathrooms might change some hardcore street people’s minds about turning themselves over for rehab or whatever, everybody else could just wear diapers. It came down to a big County Commission board meeting with merchants, local residents, representatives from the City, the Homeless Trust, and the DDA. Whether the meeting was attended by any people experiencing homelessness was not noted.

Mayor to the rescue

Apparently, the Commission could have compelled the Homeless Trust to pay, but that turned out not to be necessary, as Mayor Tomas Regalado dipped into a multi-million dollar discretionary fund and pulled out $500,000. The order was made for four portable toilets, described as “airplane bathrooms on wheels.” A truck brings them around to designated spots at 2 PM and takes them away at 9 PM. They are open for less than one-third of the day, which is better than nothing.

In mid-December, the mayor and the DDA were happy to report that after only two months, the pilot program had more than halved the number of human-feces complaints. By the six-month mark, the effort had reduced the piles of downtown feces by 57%. As a bonus, the program turns out to cost less than the budget anticipated, so funds will carry it through to October.

The success of the Pit Stops is attributed to having attendants on duty. Among other chores, the worker knocks on the door after five minutes of occupancy. One of these monitors told a reporter that the toilets are used not only by street people, but by police, bus drivers, and government workers.

A lot of elderly people live in Miami, and a lot of tourists visit the city. Surely they appreciate restrooms too. The DDA’s Ken Russell said:

What started off as an initiative for the homeless actually has sort of blossomed into a service for the full city, as well as a jobs program for the homeless.

So, a few jobs have been created, although the seven-hour daily shift inspires the question of whether anyone gets full-time benefits.

Last month, it was reported that Miami will invest in three permanent public toilets. Construction for the first one starts in October, with an opening date in December. The funding? The county, the city, and the DDA.

Reactions?

Source: “Video Of Feces Downtown Sparks New Fight Over Public Toilets For Homeless,” MiamiNewTimes, 05/13/15
Source: “Miami gets a taxpayer-funded homeless poop map,” WQAD.com, 05/16/15
Source: “Miami Installs Free Public Bathrooms For Homeless People,” HuffingtonPost.com, 12/29/15
Source: “Miami mayor offers to pay for roving downtown toilet program,” MiamiHerald.com, 06/18/15
Source: “Miami mayor: $500K porta potty program a success,” MiamiHerald.com, 12/11/15
Source: “Pilot Program Provides ‘Pit Stop’ For Miami’s Homeless,” CBSlocal.com, 07/18/16
Source: “Public Bathroom Project for the Homeless Will Become Permanent,” WLRN.org, 07/21/16
Photo credit: Phillip Pessar via Visualhunt/CC BY

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A Very Basic Human Right

police-vanA news article about events in Denver summarized the situation in many American cities:

Currently, urinating outside is an inevitability for people who are homeless, yet it exposes them to police citation and ticketing. What is more, when an individual fails to pay a citation, or appear in court for it, they become subject to arrest. Thus, simply fulfilling a basic human need ultimately results in arrest. This greatly stalls that individual’s ability to extricate her or himself from homelessness.

The title of a piece from TheDailyBeast.com stated the case even more succinctly: “Homeless People Have to Pee, Too. Find a Place for Them & Stop Complaining About It, You Monsters.”
It quotes Shawn Shafner of The Poop Project, who agrees that prosecuting people for public urination criminalizes homelessness.

He says:

People who get dogs and don’t take them out to pee — we call them abusers. Those dogs get taken away. But for people with Crohn’s (Disease) or colitis or IBS, or those who develop incontinence with old age, or even pregnant women who need that space— we don’t afford them those same privileges a lot of the time.

And then there’s food poisoning, always a risk among people who depend on discarded food. Research confirms that a large number of people experiencing homelessness also suffer from a multitude of medical problems including traumatic brain injury.

People are walking around out there who are not even sure what year it is or what planet they are on. It is unlikely that such deeply disconnected people will go far to line up at a single restroom that is only open during certain hours of the day.

Not using a toilet is wrong, but using one is, too. Last March, in Santa Monica, CA, a burglary was reported at an apartment building with an untenanted unit. Inside, police found a man who just wanted to use the bathroom of an empty apartment whose door, he said, he had found unlocked. He had even brought his own toilet paper roll. Arrested for trespassing, he was taken to jail and his bail amount was set at $5,500.

A little farther south, in Orange County, an elementary school located next to a park has apparently been troubled by years of intrusions by people who need the facilities. The reporters don’t mention anything about any proposals to set up a port-a-potty or washing facilities. However, the District Superintendent has promised that a fence will be built and police patrols will be increased. Farther north, in Berkeley, where public elimination is of course outlawed, activists discussed the idea of mass break-ins at municipal administration buildings — not to steal, vandalize, or take hostages, but simply to use the porcelain facilities.

In Tucson, where people could sleep on sidewalks but not on grass, fast food outlet manager Nathan Hauser characterized a downtown encampment as “counterproductive,” particularly because a nearby park, used as a restroom, was a blight and a burden on the taxpayers. He said:

We pay to maintain that grass. We pay to maintain that park so people can enjoy it and right now nobody can enjoy it.

He was talking about townspeople and visitors, of course, but chances are, the people who are forced into this kind of behavior don’t actually enjoy it either.

The perceived need for debate stalls a lot of projects, as local officials seem unable to get past the stage of mulling over the pros and cons of public conveniences. They say things like, “We don’t have a definitive yes or no response on this issue at this time. There are a lot of variables that need to be considered.” Bathrooms, they say, need to be maintained, monitored, and managed. (So do golf courses, but cities that have them don’t seem to suffer from paralysis of the will over that topic.)

Last year in Fort Wayne, Indiana, there was discussion over whether to keep a downtown park’s restroom open all the time, rather than just during civic events. The Parks Director reminded the public of the expense that would be incurred by cleaning and maintenance, and liability insurance, and constant police attention. Compassionate City Council candidate Rev. Terry Anderson called a press conference, and brilliantly chose for its location a railroad overpass that traditionally served as an open-air latrine.

Reactions?

Source: “Downtown Denver Public Toilet Inventory,” DHOL, 8/17/14
Source: “Homeless People Have to Pee, Too. Find a Place for Them & Stop Complaining About It, You Monsters,” TheDailyBeast.com, 07/19/15
Source: “Homeless man arrested for trespassing needed to use restroom (crime watch),” SMDP.com, 03/21/15
Source: “Parents Worried About Kids Safety as Homeless Use OC Elementary School Bathrooms,” NBCLosAngeles.com, 05/13/15
Source: “Berkeley City Council Approves Crackdown on Homeless, Prohibits Urination in Public,” NBCBayArea.com, 11/18/15
Source: “Downtown business says homeless camp brings problems despite city crackdown,” KVOA.com, 03/10/14
Source: “Lack of public toilets gives city’s homeless no place to ‘go’,” News-Sentinel.com, 10/17/15
Photo credit: Dave Conner via Visualhunt/CC BY

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The Ongoing Restroom Shortage

outhouse2House the Homeless has been discussing the absurdity and the inhumanity of depriving people of toilets, and even worse, the insanity of criminalizing natural functions. The subject frequently comes up in the press. Earlier this week Daily Mail.com, always an enthusiastic purveyor of American showbiz news, published a whole series of photos from the making of an episode of the TV series “Girls.” Walking in the SoHo district of New York, star Lena Dunham reacts with consternation when she passes a squatting man.

In many American cities, this type of scene is all too frequently real. In San Francisco, web developer Jennifer Wong used a Department of Public Works database to create a map spotlighting all the locations from which six months worth of human waste complaints were reported by phone.

In places that have them, public restrooms are often locked at night. Bus terminals and train stations may be an option, but even if homeless people can slip in to use a toilet, such activities as sponge bathing, shaving, and sock washing are discouraged.

In Denver, Ray Lyall of Homeless Out Loud told a reporter:

There’s literally 10 restrooms that you can actually use without anybody saying anything to you… Most of those are only open during their hours of operation, so there are only two that are open 24/7.

In Austin, Texas, the subject has been a contentious one for years. Back in the autumn of 2009, journalist Marc Savlov explored some of the issues connected with the downtown presence of Caritas, the Salvation Army, and the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH) and found that…

Unfortunately, the location of all three major social services outreach groups — smack in the middle of the entertainment district and within a one-block radius of both a major liquor store and the long strip of rowdy, alcohol-fueled nightlife — has inevitably drawn fire from Sixth Street area merchants and stakeholders, pleading, “Not in our front yard.”

At the same time, plans were being made for an extensive downtown re-do centered around Waller Creek. Users of the Yelp website discussed it at length, and one person pointed out the irony of attempting to get rid of the homeless residents so the “post frat drunken tourist district” could flourish and, no doubt, create more homeless people, as both drinking and gambling have been known to have that exact result.

In 2011, the Waller Creek Conservancy announced an international competition for a master design plan. Members of the public commented that the area would still be a “giant alky toilet” and vowed that “the bums will have to be driven out.”

A local landowner named Carl Daywood told the press:

You can have all the dreams in the world of what Waller Creek is to be like, but it’s not going to happen if we don’t deal with the transient population. The City Council needs to step up to the plate and pass stronger laws and insist that the police enforce them and the judges back them up.

Two years later, nothing had been solved and the First United Methodist Church sent out a distress call. It was providing services for people experiencing homelessness, but because of the lack of public restrooms, the church property was acquiring an “overpowering” smell of urine. Because of the same lack, certain businesses take the brunt of the inconvenience, like chain coffee shops that are open when overnight shelters turn their patrons out into the streets.

One school of thought holds that all restrooms located in businesses should be available to anyone. This is unlikely to happen, because the NIMBY, or “Not In My Back Yard,” sentiment only becomes more intense with “Not In My Bathroom, Yo.”

A politician suggested that churches should take over bathroom duty. Imagine a future in which churches are both punished for feeding people, and at the same time pressured to provide access to their restrooms. The same guy recommended that people should pester whatever staff members are on duty at the shelter during its officially closed daytime hours.

House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell works at ARCH, providing pro bono legal help for clients. If put in charge of the bodily functions problem, what would he do? He says:

First, as Toilet Czar I would encourage all the employers on famed 6th Street to act as Ambassadors, and to open up their facilities to all users regardless of gender, etc. And I would place portable toilets at park and trail heads and recreation areas.

Private citizens would have access through pay-as-you-use coin operation. Homeless individuals would acquire tokens from any of the shelters or service organizations upon request.

Then I would create automatic toilets that would have deep sink facilities and cell phone charging capabilities. These would be drawing cards to encourage people to leave the creek areas for washing and defecation purposes. There would be visibly open bottoms so users would be discouraged from inappropriate activity.

Periodically, the toilets would automatically lock to outside access at stated times. After 20 minutes, an internal flush system would hose down the facility three times a day.

We should seek funds from the Restaurant Association, the local Chamber of Commerce, Health and Human Services, the Municipality (the City of Austin), Parks and Recreation Department (and therefore the sporting goods industry), the federal government under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, and the Centers for Disease Control.

Reactions?

Source: “Human feces map finds San Francisco’s homeless,” NYPost.com, 01/02/15
Source: “Homeless America: ‘Everyone should be able to pee for free with dignity’,” AlJazeera.com, 08/29/14
Source: “Faces of Homelessness,” AustinChronicle.com, 10/09/09
Source: “Will the Waller Creek Development be the death of Red River music scene?,” Yelp.com, October 2009
Source: “Private conservancy outlines plan to rescue, revive Waller Creek,” Statesman, 04/27/11
Source: “Homeless need restrooms,” MyStatesman.com, 11/01/13
Photo credit: apple_lipsis via Visualhunt/CC BY

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