A few American cities have reached a kind of homelessness boiling point, and San Francisco is one of them. The latest count, more than a year old, determined that 6,686 people experienced homelessness in the city at that time. In the San Francisco Chronicle, Heather Knight notes that “There are about 700 homeless people living in 100 encampments around San Francisco,” and goes on to enumerate the myths of homelessness.
The first myth to fall is that San Francisco is overburdened with homeless people because of its generosity, which is predicated on the notion that people are voluntarily homeless. According to that school of thought, if the city would summon the will to exert “tough love” by cutting services, people experiencing homelessness will change their minds and pursue a different lifestyle.
According to the myth, the services offered by a compassionate city act as a magnet to draw an opportunistic crew of dispossessed people from everywhere. On the contrary, a survey showed that 71% of San Francisco’s street people had formerly been housed in the city.
They were trying to establish lives there, and they experienced setbacks. Knight says:
So a few hundred of the 6,686 homeless people in San Francisco came for our great homeless services — a sizable chunk, but nowhere near the majority.
Matthew Doherty, executive director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, came to San Francisco recently and said just about every city he visits claims it’s a magnet for homeless people because of its robust services. Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, Ore. — you name it.
This suggests that if other communities would do more, the hub cities would not have to absorb so many abandoned and disenfranchised individuals.
Myth 2 — “A lot of people just want to be homeless” — contains a kernel of truth. A small percentage of rough sleepers actually insist on a nomadic life, for reasons that range from schizophrenia to PTSD to reckless adventurousness. Unfortunately, some folks are “treatment resistant” because of inadequate excuses for treatment they have been subjected to in the past. Most shelters don’t let partners stay together, or allow pets, or provide safe storage for belongings. Even if a shelter bed costs nothing, the price may be too high in other ways.
But if everybody stayed in full compliance with the rules, there wouldn’t be enough beds for nearly 7,000 San Franciscans. Despite Myth 3, that there are plenty of beds, the city only has 1,200, and at any given time more than 600 people are likely to be on the waiting list.
Myth 4 holds that if only the homeless people were gone, the streets would be pristinely clean. According to this myth, college students, tourists, and housed people never toss litter on the sidewalk, pee in the bushes, dispose of unwanted possessions inappropriately, or let their dogs deposit feces in public places.
Myth 5, according to Knight, is a particularly hurtful one, that the Coalition on Homelessness is getting rich off the current situation and only wants it to become worse. This is related to Myth 6, which has to do with the mathematics of how the city’s homeless services budget is distributed. We needn’t go into San Francisco’s particulars, but it is a good reminder that in any city, someone needs to keep a close eye on how the homeless money is spent.
Next is Myth 7 and its rebuttal:
Myth 7: If a homeless person wants services, he or she can get them immediately.
You’d hope this would be true in a city that spends $241 million — a whopping amount — on the problem. But it isn’t.
A homeless person can get a one-night emergency shelter bed quickly. But anything else — supportive housing, longer-term shelter beds, mental health care, substance abuse services — requires a waiting list. If the waiting list is even taking new names. Some are so long, they’re closed… All waiting lists for housing beyond shelter take years.
Myth 8 on Knight’s list is that “We’re all just one paycheck away from being homeless.” She believes that the average person, if faced with homelessness, would be helped by friends or family members.
Unfortunately, in the real world, housed people are not willing to get rid of their pets just because an animal-allergic friend needs a place to stay. They keep their spare room empty in case their college-student kid decides to visit, or keep it filled with stuff owned by another relative who doesn’t want to pay for a storage unit.
People receiving Section 8 help are forbidden by the government from sharing their living space. Housed people have a lot of different reasons for being unable to help, so Knight’s assessment might be overly optimistic.
Source: “What San Franciscans know about homeless isn’t necessarily true,” SFChronicle, 04/01/16
Source: “Myths, like homeless problem, not going away,” SFChronicle.com, 04/08/16
Photo credit: Dale Simonson via Visualhunt.com/CC BY-SA
In case you missed it, we strongly recommend this very thorough overview of the latest development in reducing the horrendous amount of damage that has resulted from traumatic brain injury.
“Survey Links Brain Injury to Medical Causes of Homelessness To be Addressed with Hormone Therapy” describes the efforts of endocrinologist Dr. Mark L. Gordon of Millennium Heath Centers, who has made it his mission to certify 500 doctors in hormone replacement therapy. Dr. Gordon is collaborating with special forces veteran Andrew Marr and the Warrior Angels Foundation, and with House the Homeless.
But what does this have to do with homelessness? Our readers will remember that traumatic brain injuries have been suffered by an astonishing number of people experiencing homelessness, including a large humber of veterans.
Now let’s celebrate some other people who work at the intersection of medicine and homelessness. California is always a good state to look at, because a lot of things are tried out there first before being adopted in other parts of the country. Five years ago, when Alameda County received a $300,000 federal stimulus grant, the money went to replace the old worn-out mobile health bus with a “flashy RV with the ability to treat almost every small to medium-sized medical problem on the spot.” The plan was for it to travel among 28 locations in the county, which includes Oakland, Berkeley, and several other cities. The current schedule can be found online.
In San Diego, the St. Vincent de Paul organization has been holding the line against poverty and homelessness for some 60 years. They have had mobile clinics for a long time, but homeless healthcare is only one facet of the many services, which include rental assistance, education, job training, mental health, food, clothing, addiction treatment, case management, and child development. The Village Family Health Center exclusively serves homeless patients, including care in the specialized areas of dentistry, pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, and psychiatry.
Dr. Chris Searles, the former director of clinical outreach, once described the frustration of knowing that, for every patient who eventually would be seen, there were rough sleepers who could not muster up the trust to present themselves, and others who did not identity themselves as having a problem. Equally dismaying, then and now, are the many people who need multiple medications just to maintain, but who can’t afford to pay several hundred dollars a month for pharmaceuticals.
Dr. Searles told reporter Randy Doting:
We see a lot of people with skin infections. We see people who make their living from canning (gathering cans for recycling) in dumpsters get impetigo… [D]ifferent types of skin infections and a lot of respiratory problems…
Sometimes it takes seven or eight times before they’re ready to make an appointment…
We see people who’ve lived with untreated schizophrenia or bipolar disorder for years, and sometimes the very thing they need to be treated for is pushing them away from the clinic. A paranoid schizophrenic who doesn’t trust easily is not going to want to go to a doctor…
Serving as medical director of Homeless Health Care LA, Dr. Susan Partovi espouses the same take-it-slow philosophy, and told journalist Usha Lee McFarling that street medicine is all about developing relationships. This is done by listening respectfully, moving gradually, and most of all, waiting.
In Los Angeles, “Skid Row” is famous worldwide for its huge concentration of people experiencing homelessness, and an awful lot of the residents are very sick with everything from scurvy to the virulent MRSA infection. For over a decade, Dr. Partovi has visited the area often, helping in any way she can. Often, this help involves exercising a skill that has caused her to be known as Queen of the Abscess. The practice of street medicine offers many intangible rewards, but glamour is not one of them.
Source: “Roving Medical Bus Provides Health Care to Alameda County’s …,” CBSLocal.com, 10/01/11
Source: “Alameda County HCHP Homeless Services Calendar,” Alameda County Public Health Department
Source: “St. Vincent de Paul Village, Inc.,” AllianceHealthCareFoundation.org, February 2012
Source: “A Transient Doctor for the Homeless,” VoiceofSanDiego, 06/10/11
Source: “Her office is Skid Row: A doctor tends to the staggering needs of the homeless,” StatNews.com, 05/13/16
Photo credit: Indavar via Visualhunt.com/CC BY-ND
The cops used to come by a few times a year, now it’s twice a night.
That is what Ray Lyall, resident of the Denver streets, said to LA Times reporter David Kelly. The police “come by” to roust people who live outside, tell them to move on to another location, and, often, throw away their belongings. Kelly also includes a quote from an official who asks, in a rhetorical sort of way, “Who could have foreseen the great recession?”
The question sounds disingenuous, until the reader understands that the speaker works for a city agency with an agenda. On the contrary, in the days since 2008, it has become clear that the crippling economic crisis could have been, and was, foreseen by the people who engineered it. But as long as they and their friends profited from the recession, at the cost of everyone else, they didn’t care. Bennie Milliner also said this:
The homeless problem was greatly exacerbated by the housing downturn and the bursting of the housing bubble.
… To which Kelly adds:
Now the opposite is true. The Denver-Aurora metro area has seen a 26% increase in home prices over the last two years, one of the highest in the country.
Consider that telling phrase, “Now the opposite is true.” In other words, both general prosperity and the lack of general prosperity are causes of homelessness. Any society in which both things are true is a society that has something basically wrong with it.
This point of view is not unique. Kelly notes that “critics believe the city is applying bandages when major surgery is needed.” The American Civil Liberties Union says that Denver, other Colorado cities, and municipalities all over the nation are criminalizing homelessness.
Scorched earth policy
A particular type of news story has become very common as it emanates from one city after another. There is a fire at a homeless encampment, and immediately the citizens cry for the camp to be abolished, and police and city workers do a “sweep” to push all the inhabitants out of the area. Makeshift shelters are torn down; tents, tarpaulins, and bedding are loaded into trucks and taken to the landfill. The fact that there was a fire (or some other incident) is used to justify making a gigantic leap to the idea that no settlements should exist.
There are much better reasons for society to decide that it is not good for people to experience homelessness in random encampments. The best reason for camps to be abolished would be if the inhabitants had some other place to go and live, but this is seldom the case. When something bad happens in a shantytown, housed people have a thoughtless, knee-jerk impulse to tear down the impromptu village.
But strangely, when there is a conflagration in an apartment building, nobody goes public with a demand to abolish all apartment buildings. When a private home catches fire, citizens don’t rise up and agitate for bulldozers to move in and level neighborhoods of single-family dwellings.
This comparison could be extended almost endlessly. When a school, grocery store, or church catches fire, no sane person proposes that schools, grocery stores, or churches should be banned. Kelly also quoted the manager of the Denver Rescue Mission, who confided that the encampments wiped out by authorities were “rife with gambling, drug dealing and prostitution.” Steve Walkup went on to say:
But they’ll probably rebuild their shantytowns. One will go up and another and another.
But pause and consider… A certain Nevada locale is rife with gambling, drugs, and prostitution, yet hardly anyone suggests nuking Las Vegas. When an outdated structure is demolished, very few people shake their heads and say, “But they’ll probably rebuild their hotels and casinos. One will go up and another and another.” Of course they will. Only a very naive or oblivious person is surprised by anything that happens in such a capital of commerce, because that is its nature.
And what happens in any city where thousands of people have nowhere to live should not be surprising either. Of course, camps form. Small communities are established, and in those rough-and-ready colonies are all kinds of humans, including people with a work ethic and moochers who just want to coast; and conscientious neighbors, and careless jerks who allow fires to start.
There are some virtually helpless people, and some who can cope with anything life throws at them. Some whose ideals and principles never waver, and some desperate enough to try anything. In short, people experiencing homelessness, who live in camps, are pretty much like people in rowhouses and highrises, except more exposed and vulnerable. Otherwise, the differences are superficial.
Anyone who cares to may have a look at the 80-page PDF file, The 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress.
Megan Elliott specializes in picking through reams of statistics to throw light on tendencies and trends. It is believed that around 565,000 people experience homelessness at any given time in America. Half of that entire population is concentrated in only five states — California, New York, Florida, Texas, and Massachusetts.
California is a mess. There are more than 40,000 homeless people in the city and county of Los Angeles, and 70% of them are unsheltered. New York City is another disaster, with 14% of the entire country’s homeless people living there.
Despite Massachusetts being in the top five, it is interesting that the city of Boston has the lowest rate of unsheltered homeless people, and the lowest rate of those categorized as “chronically homeless.” Washington, D.C., is the opposite, with a very high percentage of the people who were counted being categorized as “chronically homeless” — 42% versus 23%, so almost twice as high as the national average. The nation’s capital also has a lot of homeless veterans.
In San Diego, whose entire economy is dictated by military spending, veterans account for disproportionate segment of the homeless demographic. In California as a whole, 62% of homeless vets were found to be unsheltered.
San Francisco and Las Vegas are the youth magnets, with the highest proportions of unaccompanied children and teens. These kids are on their own. Sure, a few had bad attitudes and ran away for stupid reasons. Some were simply let go, perhaps because their parents divorced and neither one wanted to take the responsibility.
When separated parents form other attachments, the new partners might perceive the kids as embarrassing mistakes, or rivals for scare emotional currency, or even as actual threats. Kids who suffer from cruelty at home would often rather take their chances out in the world.
In both Seattle and Chicago, families with children make up around one-third of the entire homeless population. This news from New York City is hot off the press:
The already strained shelter system — which is so crowded that the city has resorted to using hotels to accommodate people — has also seen a spike in the number of single adults and adult families without kids.
The number of singles averaged 12,232 a night last month, the highest since the city started separating singles from families in 2009, according to the latest stats from the Department of Homeless Services.
And the number of adult families — typically married couples — also peaked with an average of 2,221 families a night in February, which is also the highest total in that category since 2009.
Meanwhile, the number of families with children — which began climbing in August — is at near record levels, with 12,232 families on an average night, according to DHS.
That’s a lot of kids going through a real hard time in the van or garage where they hole up, maybe with bathroom privileges from a kind neighbor. Imagine being a third-grader whose single mother is overwhelmed by terror or hopelessness. How do you tell her, “It’s all right, you don’t have to go back with Daddy and get yelled at or hit.”
At school, everything is stacked against these kids. They show up in yesterday’s clothes, with less-than-optimal grooming, and get free lunches or none at all, and can’t afford the outfit to either join a sports team or cheer for the athletes. It’s widely believed that in America, the years of what used to be called junior high school are the worst. Imagine being in middle school and homeless, with nothing and no one to depend on.
Nationwide, the best estimate is something like 130,000 children who are growing up with food insecurity, and in situations where permanent, stable housing — i.e. a home — is a foolish dream. Where will these kids be in 10 years? What will they be doing? It’s worth giving this a good, hard think.
Source: “The 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress,” hudexchange.info, November 2015
Source: “Poverty: 10 Cities With the Most Homeless People,” CheatSheet.com, 04/25/16
Source: “EXCLUSIVE: NYC homeless shelters have near-record number of families with children,” NYDailyNews.com, 03/07/16
Photo credit: USDAgov via Visualhunt/CC BY
An essay that Dan Arel wrote for Counterpunch about the current goings-on in San Diego is vital because it concerns two topics that have been extensively covered by House the Homeless: the Housing First concept and “sweeps.”
Arel speaks of the violent El Nino weather patterns that afflicted Southern California early last month, just when “community frustration” about the large number of people experiencing homelessness was rising. The only answer the mayor’s office could come up with was to order a “cleanup,” as if poverty-stricken, unhoused people are dirt that needs to be swept away.
Many police officers took part in the tearing down of shelters and the relegation of people’s possessions to garbage trucks. Arel writes:
To make matters worse, the officers timed their action when many of the homeless in the area had gone inside to access restrooms at the Neil Good Day Center. When the homeless citizens went inside, police deemed their property abandoned and collected it all.
Aside from everything else, the reporter was told by activist Michael McConnell that the response rate of the police department to actual crimes is far from admirable, and to have police personnel throwing away blankets and tents is a terrible waste of public funds. Caltrans also keeps its workers busy with “a crew out almost every day cleaning out downtown area camps.” Supposedly, the homeless are given three-days notice to move elsewhere, which is a cruel joke when there is no other place to go.
As always, the city cites sanitation and hygiene concerns. As always, decent people wonder why there can’t be public restrooms and even places for washing up and doing laundry. The society we live in has ambitions to build colonies on other planets, yet can’t figure out how to provide sanitation and hygiene in a modern, advance city here on Earth.
In addition to “sweep” and “cleanup,” civic authorities also use the term “purge” which has even worse connotations. A purge is the abrupt or violent removal of people from an organization or place. The word has many synonyms, including expulsion, ejection, exclusion, eviction, and eradication. Purges were and are engaged in by conscienceless tyrants in banana republics, Iron Curtain countries, and places ruled by medieval-minded warlords.
Somewhere around 9,000 homeless people live in San Diego, and a lot of them lost vital medications, personal papers and documents, irreplaceable belongings, sleeping bags, spare clothes, and more in this effort to clean up the city. The local activists, when they show up at protests and meetings, wear trash bags to convey the message, “Stop treating human beings like garbage.”
The reporter says:
Roughly one-third of the unsheltered homeless have a physical disability, and one-fifth suffer from severe mental illness. These men and women need more help than is available and what they receive instead is harassment by law enforcement and the city government… Throwing away possessions and destroying homeless camps does not solve the crisis facing the city… With mentally ill and elderly people lining our streets, San Diego must do better.
Allegedly, “tens of millions of dollars” are available to help people pay rent under the Section 8 program, but as in so many other places, landlords refuse to take Section 8 tenants. Obviously some other solution is needed, and needed now.
One of the most disturbing paragraphs in this deeply disturbing story concerns the reporter’s assessment of the Housing First paradigm as a failure — at least in San Diego:
The solution, which looks fantastic on paper, gives these men, women, and families a stable living situation and allows them to rebuild their lives and even reenter the workforce. However, this plan has never been successful and instead of rethinking the strategy, it seems that city officials have just thrown their arms up in frustration… Using landlords as a scapegoat for inaction accomplishes nothing…
Who should be the scapegoats? The municipal administrators who allegedly are smart enough to run things, but who can’t figure this stuff out — not just in San Diego, but everywhere in America.
It’s funny how, whenever a city wants to build a dog park or a racetrack or a sports arena, funding is available and obstacles magically melt away. But when it comes to creating places for people to live under roofs with electricity and running water, it’s like this enormous puzzle that none of these college-educated, highly-paid bureaucrats can wrap their heads around.
Housing? For humans? The clever, suit-wearing winners are at a complete loss. Imagining how to get people in out of the weather is an insurmountable challenge.
Yes, the title of this post is a sarcastic joke, because the increasing propensity of cities to criminalize homelessness is anything but fine. If it were not so deadly serious, the insanity of trying to wipe out poverty by punishing it with monetary penalties would be hilarious.
Just last month, in the Italian the town of Bordighera, the mayor demonstrated his understanding of how foolish it is to fine the homeless. Instead, he announced that anyone caught giving money to a beggar would be fined.
House the Homeless mentioned the fellow in the Canadian city of Montreal who owes the equivalent of $18,000 in homeless fees. The London borough of Hackney announced its intention to fine the homeless between (the British equivalent of) $142 and $1,420 for such offenses as sleeping outside and panhandling. More than 65,000 signed a petition objecting to the idea, and the Hackney Council backed off.
There are plenty of similarly grotesque examples in America, where the following incidents have happened in recent history.
In San Antonio, Texas, chef Joan Cheever, who owns a commercially licensed food truck, was warned that she could no longer deliver food to the homeless in her personal truck, which apparently is necessary because it is not practical to park the larger food truck in some locations. The bureaucracy decided that she could only hand out industrially packaged food from the smaller truck, rather than the nourishing gourmet meals that she cooked.
After receiving the first ticket that fined her $2,000, she continued to serve food in the accustomed way and told reporter Stefanie Tuder:
I’m not going to settle and I’m not going to pay the fine and I’m not going to stop. They can come out every Tuesday and write me up a ticket and we’ll just start collecting them.
By the way, House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell has called defiant chef Joan Cheever his hero.
In a Florida town where a 90-year-old veteran and two ministers were feeding people experiencing homelessness, a new law was passed that would fine them up to $500 and possibly send them to jail, and the veteran was arrested twice in one week.
In Kansas City, Missouri, charitable organizations can run afoul of the law by providing food or other services within 500 feet of a park or within 1,000 feet of a school.
Aside from food providers, people determined to help in other ways are penalized. In Portland, Oregon, a property owner was fined for allowing an impromptu community called “Right 2 Dream Too” to exist on his empty lot.
In Temecula, California, the only full-time homeless shelter was told it had to close within a month, and Jeff Horseman reported that Project TOUCH already been fined more than $2,000 and faced further penalties of $1,000 a day.
In Madison, Wisconsin, a couple set up lockers on their front porch so people experiencing homelessness could store their belongings. Sometimes, people even slept on the porch.
The neighbors complained, and the generous couple were threatened with daily $300 fines. Scott Keyes reported:
People being threatened or assessed with fines for helping the homeless is becoming a trend recently. Earlier this year, a Florida couple was fined $746 for feeding homeless people, while a Birmingham pastor was prevented from doing so because he didn’t have a $500 permit. Even church groups based in St. Louis and Raleigh have been blocked and threatened with arrest for handing out meals to their homeless neighbors.
In McMinnville, Oregon, a church that started by serving coffee and snacks began letting people camp outside at night, and was threatened with fines for the violation of zoning ordinances. In this case, a compromise was reached: Tents would no longer be allowed, but people could stay overnight on the property in sleeping bags.
Source: “This town will fine you for giving money to homeless people,” WashingtonPost.com, 03/18/16
Source: “Hackney confirms it will not be fining homeless people,” localgov,co.uk, 06/08/15
Source: “San Antonio, Texas, Chef Fights City Fine to Feed the Homeless,” Yahoo.com, 04/22/15
Source: “90-Year-Old WW2 Veteran and Two Clergymen Face 60 Days in Jail for Feeding the Homeless in Florida,” LibertyBlitzkrieg.com, 11/05/14
Source: “How helping the homeless could get you in trouble in Missouri,” fox4kc.com, 12/19/14
Source: “Portland homeless camp faces closure,” DailyTidings.com, 02/01/12
Source: “Temecula homeless shelter has 30 days to close, avoid fines,” PE.com, 05/14/11
Source: “Church Could Face Fine for Allowing Homeless Congregation to Stay on Property,” texomashomepage.com, 03/17/15
Source: “Couple Who Let Homeless People Sleep On Their Porch Threatened With Daily Fine,” ThinkProgress.org, 09/19/14
Photo credit: thelesleyshow via Visualhunt/CC BY
For those who live on the streets, it is a common experience to be blamed, scorned, scolded, fined, or even jailed for the de facto crime of Breathing While Homeless.
Our northern neighbor Canada does not always set a good example. Toronto has been a very tough place for some time.
In 2012, things were so bad they were holding Homeless Memorials not just yearly, but every month. One of those remembered was Louis Quinn, who died owing the city as much as $30,000 because of the almost daily tickets he was issued for panhandling and encumbering a sidewalk.
Of course he wasn’t the only one. Research showed the insane but unsurprising fact that handing out such tickets used up a million dollars worth of police labor time each year. There were millions of dollars worth of unpaid fines, and the city recouped some spare change by selling the debt to collection agencies, who were then highly incentivized to cause even more grief in the lives of people experiencing homelessness.
John Bonnar wrote:
If they don’t pay up it goes against their credit rating. Then if they do manage to make it back on their feet, their negative credit rating rating could prevent them from obtaining a credit card, renting an apartment, leasing a car or even acquiring a cell phone contract.
Apparently, matters on the Canadian front have not improved. This enlightening paragraph was written earlier this month by Patrick Lejtenyi for Vice.com:
It’s no secret that Montreal cops have monthly ticket quotas to meet. The police admitted as much two years ago… Those quotas are being met in large part by handing them out to the homeless, even with the knowledge that the fines will likely never be paid.
Isabelle Raffestin, coordinator of the Droit Devant legal clinic, told the reporter about a typical case, in which a middle-aged man, ill in both body and mind, owed the government the equivalent of $18,000 USD in fines that stemmed from his homeless condition. Another source mentioned knowing several young people who had made some progress toward getting their lives on track, but who had been dragged back into penury, and even imprisoned, because of the fines levied on them for doing things that housed people have no need or reason to do, or at least tend to get away with.
The good news is that Montreal has a municipal court program where the possibility exists of convincing the public prosecutor to extend amnesty and tear up the tickets. But is that the best solution? Lejtenyi writes:
Those who have lived on the streets and gone through the legal system say the homeless in Montreal are caught in a weird echo-chamber of the city’s making. They are well-served when they want to access social services, programs, and legal aid — but they wouldn’t need them if they weren’t made such easy targets for police in the first place.
It begins to sound as if homelessness is just a gigantic job-creation program for civil servants. In America, House the Homeless has mentioned the ever-increasing number of “sweeps” that take place in cities where enormous resources are used to move people experiencing homelessness from one place to another, invariably losing stability, and possessions, along the way.
One sorry example is Denver, Colorado, where police have become increasingly aggressive and brutal. Meanwhile, over the past three years the city’s police department has spent upward of $1.3 million on its media relations department.
A statement from their boss said their duties include:
[…] handling phone calls and interview requests from the media 24/7, organizing press conferences, writing press releases, producing podcasts, internal communication, safety campaigns, projects with other city agencies, promoting department events, plus many other tasks.
Including, no doubt, plenty of spin and lots of damage control. Apparently it has not occurred to the city that better police training and more humane policies might obviate the need for costly public relations efforts. Meanwhile, even worse stories are out there. In Orlando, Florida, last year, a public defender made news:
Robert Wesley wants to put an end to low value arrests with high court fines, which he said hurts the homeless and is a burden on taxpayers because of the cost incurred during the cases that the defendants ultimately can’t pay.
Wesley told journalist Stewart Moore about a particular case where a man dying in a hospice had to be guarded by police at all times, at ridiculous cost to the taxpayers. Technically, he was under arrest for not paying homeless fines.
Source: “Homeless people racking up thousands in fines under Safe Streets Act,” Rabble.ca, 09/13/12
Source: “Why Did Canada Fine This Homeless Man $80,000?,” Vice.com, 03/01/16
Source: “Denver Police defend spending more than $1.3 million over three years on public relations,” TheDenverChannel.com, 02/16/16
Source: “Local public defender calls for stop to homeless arrests, fines,” WESH.com, 08/11/15
Photo credit: wantmorepuppies via Visualhunt/CC BY
Last week we mentioned a fellow whose dentures were stolen by the authorities in their quest to “clean up” San Francisco for a gigantic sports event. Oscar McKinney has other problems too, like a couple of dozen citations for loitering, sleeping, and just generally Breathing While Homeless.
In that legendary city, law enforcement is relentless against homeless people who are “engaged in necessary, life-sustaining activities.” According to ThinkProgress.org:
There are 23 city codes criminalizing things like standing or resting in public, sleeping in public places and cars, and panhandling… Police issued nearly 23,000 citations for violations of these codes between 2006 and 2014.
This game has many variations. For a Change.org page that has not been archived, “Slumjack Homeless” once described being ticketed for sleeping on a sidewalk:
Now I’ll have to go to court (more costly and wastefully time consuming than you can imagine, requiring going all the way to another city to do so) where they typically then impose fines (far more “expensive” in this predicament than you might realize) which can also be “paid” via “community service” […] which means working, unpaid, for perhaps 30 hours or so. Free slave labor, really, and from people that STILL can’t sleep or live anywhere.
In nearby Marin County in 2011, Legal Aid attorney Maura Prendiville took a look at the stats, which at the time reported approximately 5,000 people in the county experiencing homelessness or extremely precarious living situations. Even though there was no shelter space, people were ticketed for sleeping outdoors, and for numerous petty infractions.
Activists created a pilot program with the goal of helping people avoid, rather than accrue, criminal records. The community court would have the option of referring defendants to substance abuse programs and other mental health services. Here too, people could “work off” their fines with the judge’s permission.
CBS news quoted Rick Buquia, who described they cycle of court appearances, volunteer work, and jail that had become his life. The reporter wrote:
He has been homeless for three years and is facing a $1,000 ticket he simply cannot afford to pay.
In Looking Up at the Bottom Line, House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell narrates the beginnings of the battle for sanity in Austin that later, after years of work, resulted in some relatively humane rules. Under a proposed ordinance, sleeping rough would be a criminal offense with a fine of up to $500. People would get tickets they couldn’t pay for, and then be locked up and emerge with criminal records.
The city had only a few hundred shelter beds and a homeless population of several thousand, so how was this supposed to work? Richard wrote:
To some, the idea was ludicrous, for if the homeless had $500.00 surely they would opt to sleep somewhere other than under a bridge. For others, the homeless were merely being asked to pay their “debt to society” for their crime of sleeping in public… These people would then be returned to the streets, still without jobs, or still without jobs paying living wages. They would still have no access to affordable housing, and the only continuity in their lives was that they were assured of being arrested again… and again.
Source: “‘They’re Herding Us Like Cattle’: How San Francisco’s Homeless and the City Are Paying Dearly for Superbowl 50,” Alternet.org, 01/28/16
Source: “San Francisco Clears Out Homeless Ahead Of The Super Bowl,” ThinkProgress.org, 02/03/16
Source: “Why I Choose Streets Over Shelter,” Change.org, 06/03/09
Source: “Community Court Gives Fresh Start To Marin County Homeless,” CBSlocal.com, 05/13/11
Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Amazon.com
Photo credit: kenteegardin via Visual hunt/CC BY-SA
Readers will remember the Open Letter to the City of Austin, written by the President and CEO of House the Homeless, Richard R. Troxell. (Scroll down the page past more recent events such as Amplify Austin, the Traumatic Brain Injury Survey Report, Kids 4 Kids Sake, the Thermal Underwear Party, the Homeless Sunrise Memorial Service, the Veterans’ Day Parade, and Bridge the Economic Gap Day. Look for the Department of Justice seal, and you’re there.)
The letter was widely circulated and published, not only to the officials and bureaucrats of Austin, Texas, but to like-minded organizations and to the press. This was in August of last year, more than six months ago, and the problems outlined in the text have only become worse since then.
All over America, even people with jobs can’t afford to pay for roofs over their heads. All over America, laws are in place that criminalize the most basic and necessary human activities, and “Quality of Life” ordinances take into consideration only the quality of housed people’s lives.
Everywhere, “sweeps” and “cleanups” take from people experiencing homeless even the precarious communities they form in vacant lots and under highways. The constant message is, “Move on, get out of here, go somewhere else.” But where?
Less than a week ago, this news came from Colorado:
Today, March 8th, the City Officials of Denver under Mayor Hancock used an “order of removal” ordinance to enable Public Works to decide what is an “encumbrance.” They used this “law” to force everyone out of the area and take away people’s tarps, blankets, and other belongings… Roughly 75 people were displaced from the places they have called home — many of whom for many months or even years. There is no legal option for almost anyone for where to go to.
As far back as last August Ed Lee, the mayor of San Francisco, California, told the press that the homeless would have to leave before Super Bowl time came around. By November, people experiencing homelessness were being pushed out of downtown.
In a city with an estimated 7,000 homeless residents, it is not easy to get them all out of sight so that tourists won’t be bummed out by their presence. City workers “herded” as many people as possible to a new place under a freeway. Typical was a fellow named Oscar McKinney, whose situation was described by journalist Evelyn Nieves:
City workers had removed his possessions right in front of him, he said, including all his identification papers. “They even got my teeth,” he said, displaying a wry, hollow smile. If they come around again, he said, he has no idea where he’ll go.
Meanwhile, the Super Bowl organizers were making sure that no homeless people would get fancy ideas about benefiting from the upcoming city-wide party. No free events would be accessible to them, because no one carrying a tent or a sleeping bag would be allowed to enter.
Sam Dodge, the mayor’s homeless czar, offered a typically callous statement to The Wall Street Journal reporter Stu Woo:
He said the homeless could likely retrieve confiscated belongings at city storage.
In “The Criminalization of Ownership,” House the Homeless has examined that particular fairytale. Another instance of unintentional humor arose after the football festival was over, as expressed in this headline from The Guardian: “Homeless ordered to vacate camp they were pressured into before Super Bowl.”
People who had previously existed in the areas most needed for the celebrations had been moved, in some cases, to shelters, but many were forcibly guided to the underside of a highway overpass. Three weeks after the big game, the public health department wanted them out of there within 72 hours of when the eviction order was issued, largely because of accumulated human waste and general trash.
Did the city not provide portable toilets or dumpsters? Apparently not. A statement from the director of health, Barbara Garcia, said:
Conditions where multiple tents are congregated have become unsafe. People are living without access to running water, bathrooms, trash disposal or safe heating or cooking facilities.
The solution that seemed good to the city authorities was make the people go find some other location without running water, bathrooms, trash disposal, or safe heating or cooking facilities.
Source: “City Sweeps People Without Homes from All the Blocks by Lawrence/Broadway/Park Ave,” wraaphome.org, 03/09/16
Source: “‘They’re Herding Us Like Cattle’: How San Francisco’s Homeless and the City Are Paying Dearly for Superbowl 50,” Alternet.org, 01/28/16
Source: “The Vanishing Homeless of Super Bowl 50,” WSJ.com, 02/02/16
Source: “Homeless ordered to vacate camp they were pressured into before Super Bowl,” TheGuardian.com, 02/25/16
Austin, Texas, is often our subject because House the Homeless was founded here 27 years ago and has played a major role ever since in reversing the tide of homelessness. Austin is important for other reasons. It is a progressive city inside a state that in many ways lags behind other places, when it comes to addressing social issues. But Austin definitely tries!
Interesting things have happened over the past few years. In the fall of 2012, the police chief publicly expressed his feelings about the importance, in his eyes, of moving organizations like the Austin Resource Center for the homeless, the Salvation Army, and Caritas out of the city center.
In the spring of March 2014, a group called Austin Atheists Helping the Homeless got some media attention when a volunteer known as Angel talked about the 5-year-old organization, which she and her husband had been donating energy to for several months. They had been looking for something useful they could do as a family, and found it there, working with not only adults but kids of all ages who collected and sorted useful items.
Angel told reporter Amy Roth:
We focus solely on distributing basic living items to people experiencing homelessness. Tangible donations are accepted year round then distributed once a month at “giveaways.”
We set up our tables in the same parking lot as faith-based groups… [W]e make it a point not to preach…
I know our efforts won’t eradicate homelessness. It’s a systemic problem that’s too complex to be solved by an hour-long giveaway once a month. If what we do helps someone get through the next few days, that’s success.
Meanwhile, the Affordable Housing Bond had been approved by voters, allowing the city to borrow $65 million for the purpose of increasing both rental and ownership housing, as well as preserving the city’s existing affordable housing. In the fall of 2014, we reported on Austin’s innovative Community First Village.
The new year of 2015 began, and House the Homeless president Richard R. Troxell told the Statesman about the $8,000 raised by Hill Country Middle School for the annual thermal underwear gift party. This was followed by our reportage on the annual House the Homeless survey, which last year concerned relationships with the police.
Last fall, Austin was deeply concerned with completing its self-assigned task of bringing all homeless veterans in off the street, a mission complicated by the fact that the number of local homeless veterans had doubled since the previous year. This may not have been an actual increase in people, but significant of better methods of keeping track of them. House the Homeless observed Veterans Day with its usual attention, and our pages also featured a piece called “Life and Death in Homeless Austin.”
Austin-Travis County Integral Care announced its plan to break ground for the Housing First Oak Springs facility, a 40,000 square foot property that will contain 50 efficiency apartments and a clinic. Nadia Galindo reported:
Austin-Travis County Integral Care began using the Housing First model in 2013. They placed 200 people in apartments across the community, two years later, 88 percent remain housed and used 70 percent less emergency and clinical services.
Last month, local media reported on some of the difficulties that veterans still have even when established in living spaces. A home is more than a roof, and needs working plumbing, up-to-code electricity, smoke detectors and so on. Apparently, some landlords believe it is no longer their responsibility to maintain rental properties in livable condition, but want public money or donations to repair the buildings they own.
Just a few days ago, Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) announced that the most recent count of people experiencing homelessness revealed a 20% increase, although again, this may be the result of better canvassing methods or a growing willingness of people to be counted.
Either way, there appear to be 400 more people living in shelters and on the streets of Austin, than there were at the last count. Fox7Austin interviewed Richard R. Troxell, who pointed to the low minimum wage and the high cost of living, and went on to speak of the newly discovered extensive link between homelessness and Traumatic Brain Injury.
Reporter Jennifer Kendall summed up:
House the Homeless and ECHO both agree the best way to help those experiencing homelessness in Travis County is to find them shelter, but ECHO said during their annual count they found no empty beds at Austin’s shelters.
So, unless more landlords step up to offer affordable housing to homeless people in the city, anyone new who comes to the area will not have a shelter to stay in.
Source: “Austin police chief wants homeless services out of his backyard,” blogspot.com, 09/21/12
Source: “Do Better Challenge: Austin Atheists Helping the Homeless,” skepckick.org, 03/18/14
Source: “Lack of available housing a challenge for advocates of Austin’s homeless,” impactnews.com, 07/23/14
Source: “House the Homeless lends helping hand,” Statesman.com, 01/08/15
Source: “City working to find housing for Austin’s homeless veterans,” FOX7Austin.com, 10/08/15
Source: “New homeless housing complex to be built in East Austin,” KEYETV.com, 11/13/15
Source: “Homeless veteran placed in home teeming with code violations,” KXAN.com, 01/15/16
Source: “Austin sees 20 percent increase in homeless population,” KHOU.com, 03/03/16
Source: “Annual count of homeless in Travis County shows 20 percent increase,” Fox7Austin.com, 03/03/16
Photo credit: elizaIO via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA