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Over-the-Top Income Inequality

Income Inequality

When discussing the disparity between big boss pay and average worker pay, the first thing the defenders want us to know is that if top executives let their enormous paychecks be divided among the workers, each piece of the pie would be quite small.

Walmart has a million hourly employees, and 475,000 of them make more than $25,000 per year. For the purpose of this exercise, Danielle Kurtzleben leaves out those upper-tier employees. The other 525,000 workers make less. The CEO, C. Douglas McMillon, makes $25.6 million annually. If he turned over $20 million for distribution among those 525,000 employees, they would each gain only $38 per year.

When cited by industry apologists (which Kurtzleben definitely is not, by the way), examples like this are supposed to convince us to stop picking on the business world’s poor, abused CEOs. But why shouldn’t we encourage such sharing? Even if it is only $38 extra, the workers need it more than Mr. McMillon does. When a family survives on food stamps, every little bit helps. And just think what such a gesture would do for morale and public relations!

Could something like that happen?

Actually, something like that could happen, and very recently it did. At Kentucky State University, interim President Raymond Burse made news by volunteering for a $90,000 pay cut so that 24 low-income employees could have a raise. It will boost their pay rate from $7.25 to $10.25 per hour (and the institution promises to continue paying the higher wage for those positions in the future). This is a very generous example for anyone in an executive position to set, though not a totally unprecedented one.

For the Christian Science Monitor, Hayley Fox notes that at Virginia’s Hampton University, President William Harvey refused a portion, amounting to more than $1 million, of his executive compensation so that low-wage workers could be paid more. No doubt there are other examples of highly paid yet ethically aware earners trying to compensate for the system’s unfairness. Maybe this trend pioneered in academia will spread to other businesses.

But let’s get back to those who see nothing wrong with the huge discrepancy between our society’s most generously and most stingily rewarded employees. They would have us believe that everything is made right by the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) — which Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless calls the biggest scam ever perpetrated against America’s working poor.

First, you jump through the bureaucratic hoops of the application process to get back your own money that you should have had all along. And a crisis requiring money does not wait for our schedule or the government’s convenience. Mainly, the EITC is “chump change” in comparison with — and an unsatisfactory substitute for — a Living Wage that affords a family the basic necessities of life. Richard says:

Business has shifted their financial responsibility of paying a “fair wage for a fair day’s work” onto the backs of the taxpayers of America. The Federal Government has allowed the businesses of America to shirk their responsibility to pay fair minimum wages. Instead of paying what their work is worth, businesses hide behind the pitifully small tax supported stipend that leaves core American workers dirt poor and often subject to homelessness.

We will talk more about income inequality next time, but let’s just mention a few of the reasons why it is bad for the entire country. First, it’s different from general, all-encompassing poverty. Many people who grew up in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, have said they had no consciousness of being poor because everyone was equally destitute, and there was no basis for comparison. Nowadays, all who live in poverty are acutely conscious of exactly what the rich own and spend.

Historically, the consequences of extreme wealth disparity are crippling debt, a reduced standard of wellness, and economic stagnation for many individuals who had hoped and expected to better their circumstances. There is even research from the field of evolutionary psychology to show that when the difference between the highest incomes and the lowest is vast, the murder rate increases. Throughout the economy, general health and growth are negatively affected and homelessness is rampant. The processes of democracy suffer, and the political system is dangerously destabilized as the poor realize how devotedly the government serves the wealthy few. Unlike generalized and widespread poverty, an outrageous degree of inequality is very obvious. People can’t help noticing, and they don’t like what they see.

Source: “What if Walmart’s CEO took a pay cut for his workers?” Vox.com, 08/06/14
Source: “College president takes a $90,000 pay cut to give low-wage workers a raise,” CSMonitor.com, 08/15/14
Source: “CEO Of One Of The World’s Largest Banks: Income Inequality Is ‘Destabilizing,’ ThinkProgress.org, 06/13/14
Image by mSeattle

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Homelessness: Doing the Math

Hwy 87 Trail surveyTwo years ago, when the previous national Point in Time survey was done, Popular Mechanics magazine went back to the survey before that one in order to take a close look at how homeless veterans were counted. The first answer was that the Department of Housing and Urban Development had contracted with ABT Associates to count the people experiencing homelessness in America, including veterans.

ABT project director Alvaro Cortes explained how the numbers are massaged. This is called “imputing,” and it must be done because HUD knows how sketchy those reported numbers really are. For instance, volunteer population counters didn’t ask street people if they were veterans. And for some reason, HUD wasn’t counting any vets staying in VA shelters as homeless.

The official count is made every two years over a single 24-hour period. Some people are not found. Some don’t want to be enumerated. Joe Pappalardo describes the situation as it stood when he started researching the story:

In 2010, the actual head count of homeless veterans registered 61,011 people…. To reflect the homeless veterans the PIT count missed, HUD “imputed”– that is, they estimated — the number and added 15,318 homeless veterans to the official 2010 statistic.

In 2010 (and before), HUD’s imputations determined the number of unsheltered homeless vets by taking the percentage of the homeless vets reported in CoC shelters and applying that to the total number of unsheltered homeless tallied in the PIT. This added thousands of presumed homeless veterans to the statistic. The unadjusted 2010 PIT determined that 36,389 vets were in shelters and 24,728 were on the street; the adjusted 2010 count gives 43,437 sheltered and 32,892 unsheltered.

As of 2010, ABT had developed at least 10 different ways to “impute.” This imputing, Cortes told the writer, is to “reach the most accurate count.” Here is a basic question: How can they possibly determine which imputing algorithm produces the most accurate count, without knowing the actual number as a basis for comparison? And if they knew the actual number, there would be no need to impute. It all seems very arbitrary.

Start with the less confusing part, the numbers of street people reported by volunteers. It’s understandable why some adjustment might be needed. Take the number from the actual count and hypothesize possible scenarios that would augment that number. Apply an “imputing” formula and extrapolate a new number.

But why?

But. Why did the number of veterans in shelters need to be “imputed”? You’d think those numbers would be accurate. How many veterans are in temporary quarters under the jurisdiction of the VA? Isn’t the military famously meticulous about record-keeping? Were accurate records of shelter visits not being kept? And if not, why not? Those figures are of immense importance to the well-being of so many Americans.

Another question. Are patients in VA hospitals, with no place to be discharged to, counted among the homeless? Because they quite possibly might be, the moment they get out of there. Counting homeless veterans isn’t easy, and it seems at times that the underlying reason for the project is not “how can we get an accurate count?” but “how can we fiddle with the statistics to get a number we can convincingly brand as accurate?”

Pappalardo asked some of the same questions and pursued the answers. A lot of places do yearly counts of the homeless, and in 2011, volunteers were told to ask each interviewee if they were “a member or a former member of the U.S. armed services.” He wrote:

The way HUD counted veterans living in VA-run homeless shelters changed from 2010 to 2011 too. Veterans Affairs runs about 6000 emergency shelter beds in the nation; before 2011, CoCs were adjusting their counts to include these VA programs by taking the average number of beds that were occupied on any given night — about 86 percent in 2010 — and applying that across the board to get an estimate for the whole country. But those numbers didn’t match up to the VA’s statistics, and so in 2011, HUD instructed the CoCs and VA groups to reconcile the list and give a full inventory of beds for homeless veterans.

Okay, reconciling two sets of numbers is a good first step. Next: the part that critics had trouble with.

Reactions?

Source: “How Does Washington D.C. Count America’s Homeless Vets?” PopularMechanics.com, 01/19/12
Image by Richard Masoner

 

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Why Do Some Homeless People Shun Shelters?

Homeless ShelterThousands of heroic Americans have worked tirelessly to establish shelters, find the money to keep them going, staff them at the correct level, observe all applicable laws, and perform an unbelievable number of diverse tasks. As a result, some of the people experiencing homelessness are allowed to spend days or nights under a roof, some of the time, in some places. For both its providers and its guests, shelter space is hard-won.

So then, why would street people avoid shelters? Because not everyone shares the same hierarchy of needs, and a homeless person might have priorities that conflict with the seemingly obvious. It’s very hard to tell helpers that what they offer does not solve everything and might even make an individual’s situation worse. Change.org published the views of a person writing under the name SlumJack Homeless, who reminds us that we don’t live in a one-size-fits-all world. As he expresses it, “The ONLY thing that ‘the homeless’ have in common is that we don’t have homes.”

Check-in time might be as early as 5 p.m., and if you leave, someone else gets the bed. Depending on the rules, or the disposition of the staff, it might mean permanent banishment. The rules were established to help people with substance-abuse problems avoid the temptations of the dark streets. But this also eliminates the possibility of, for instance, an evening AA program. In Boulder, Colo., journalist Josie Raymond once interviewed shelter director Joy Eckstine, who said:

I’ve talked to people who literally had to choose between going to their 12-Step meetings and going to the shelter…. A lot of shelters don’t let you use your own alarm clock or provide an early enough wake-up call.

This is an area where one standard definitely is not optimal for everyone. Shelter guests, including the young, the old and the disabled, are ejected back into the streets as early as 5 AM, when nothing is open and there is nothing to do and nowhere to go. But men who walk to some distant day-laborers’ pick-up point might need to get up even earlier.

The “economic homeless” are people who work, maybe even full-time, and still can’t afford housing — but the shelter system can’t accommodate them. If you finish work at 11 PM, the shelter is full and locked down. If you get off work at 7 AM, the place with the beds is closed all day. It’s ironic that the working poor get the worst deal in this respect. Rules that curb the bad habits of the most troublesome guests can be unbearably authoritarian for the productive stranger to this scene, who just wants a normal life back. For SlumJack Homeless, evening is a time to hang in coffeeshops, read the bulletin boards, talk with people who might know of work, and hook up with the free wifi to do research and look for opportunities. He says:

Those of us that show up in the best shape and even with distinct potentials to succeed in getting back OUT of the jam are driven further into it by the shelters existing and their demands and impositions and limitations… while these operations are demonstrably designed to keep the worst cases from their own demise …they also thereby become real liabilities for the more functional among us…

SlumJack compares signing in to a shelter with volunteering for jail, because you’re going to spend a lot of time in close proximity to people you want nothing to do with. When time is a person’s only asset, much better use can be made of it than spending an evening trapped in a shelter, even if it means sleeping outside.

The Good, the Bad and the Worse

The average shelter doesn’t let a person bring in many possessions and lacks secure outdoor space, so if you have a bike or a cart it might disappear overnight. These rules are understandable too. The less stuff that comes through the door, the less opportunity for smuggling in contraband or unintentionally spreading a bedbug infestation. If you didn’t come in with bedbugs, you might leave with some hiding in your clothes. And any belongings you’re allowed to bring in might attract the attention of a thief who makes a mental note to find you alone outside tomorrow.

Everyone is coughing and sneezing, and you will probably catch something. If you prefer to cover your baldness with a hat, you might be yelled at in front of a church group that an employee is leading through on a tour. You might be in line next to a guy carrying a rusty but live hand grenade, as once happened in Santa Cruz, Calif.

ABC40 reporter Dianna Maguire recently visited a women’s shelter in Massachusetts and reported on how they eat dinner, have their bags and personal items searched, do housekeeping chores, take mandatory showers, and finally are issued bedding to make up their bunks. One of the guests told her, “You’ve got to pretty much hold onto your stuff, lock up your stuff, or sleep with it.” At a shelter, you might resent being bossed around by another homeless person who was deputized to maintain order. Kevin Barbieux, a writer on homeless issues, says:

What usually happens is that the “security guard” takes advantage of his position and engages in inappropriate behavior himself…. And the administrators, wishing to be supportive of their “program people” will summarily side with their program people…

In March, the City Rescue Mission in New Castle, Penn., got in trouble for turning away a blind man and his guide dog. Because of the Fair Housing Act, service animals are supposed to be allowed. But not pets. The no-pets rule discourages many street people from ever seeking shelter. Is that fair? On the other hand, is it fair that people who are allergic or phobic should have to spend the night cooped up with other people’s animals?

The Change.org page we mentioned (no longer available with the comments) included in the comments section a long, heartbreakingly detailed description by “K K” who told of the intense horror of living in various shelters with her three children. And yes, very bad things happen to kids in even the most well-intentioned places. But sexual predation is not limited to residents. One man commented about staying at a church shelter where women were “violated by the pastor.” This is depressing enough, but to really see a lid blown off, read Renee Miller’s “I Went Undercover at a Homeless Shelter — You Wouldn’t Believe the Shocking Abuses I Found There.”

A while back, there was a National Transgender Discrimination Survey that covered 6,560 people. The homeless survey participants spoke of being denied access to a shelter, or of being forced to live as the wrong gender — for instance, if legally male, they have to stay in a male shelter no matter what. A quarter of the respondents had been physically attacked and/or sexually assaulted by fellow residents or staff members.

It’s painful to know these things, and to see how the earnest efforts of caring citizens can go awry. But it does help to understand and be compassionate when needy people refuse help. Dennis Culhane, who studied the Philadelphia shelter system, wrote, “Anyone who ever has to stay in a shelter involuntarily knows that all you think about is how to make sure you never come back.”

Reactions?

Source: “Why I Choose Streets Over Shelter,” Change.org, 06/03/09
Source: “Why Many Homeless People Choose Streets Over Shelters,” Tonic.com, 12/02/10
Source: “WWII grenade found at homeless shelter, transient arrested,” MercuryNews.com, 08/01/11
Source: “Homeless: Life in the Shelter,” WGGB.com, 11/27/13
Source: “The Homeless Guy: A Big Problem At Homeless Shelters,” Blogspot.com, 09/24/11
Source: “For Transgender Homeless, Choice Of Shelter Can Prevent Violence …,” CityLimits.org, 12/06/2010
Source: “Theories, Predictions and Diagnoses,” Google Books
Image by Jeremy Miles

 

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Memorial – Why Do the Homeless Die?

House the Homeless Memorial TreeAustin’s annual Homeless Memorial Sunrise Service is coming up on the 17th at 6:57 a.m. It will be held at Auditorium Shores, at South First and Riverside Drive (on the south side of Lady Bird Lake). For people anywhere in the area, that’s the important thing to know, so it’s right here at the top. The custom is for someone to read the names of all the homeless people who died in Austin in the past year. Last year 156 names were read.

Other cities with hearts hold similar events, of course, and there are poverty-related deaths in every large city. People who live on the streets, in makeshift camps and even in official shelters are vulnerable in so many ways. Malnutrition is almost a certainty, and starvation a possibility. Lack of food is considered the least newsworthy cause of death and suffering on the streets, with violent deaths and assaults attracting far more attention. For instance, Young Lee, co-founder of the Pinkberry frozen yogurt company, could be sentenced to as many as seven years for brutally beating a homeless man with a tire iron in Los Angeles. Allegedly, Lee also tried to intimidate witnesses. Depending on who tells the story, there may have been provocation, but the violence was certainly not unavoidable.

A recent headline reads, “It Is Illegal To Feed The Homeless In Cities All Over The United States.” What happened in Raleigh, N.C., this August when members of the Love Wins organization attempted to continue their years-long practice of bringing breakfast sandwiches and coffee to hungry people? An uncredited author relates the story:

On that morning three officers from Raleigh Police Department prevented us from doing our work, for the first time ever. An officer said, quite bluntly, that if we attempted to distribute food, we would be arrested.

Our partnering church brought 100 sausage biscuits and large amounts of coffee. We asked the officers for permission to disperse the biscuits to the over 70 people who had lined up, waiting to eat. They said no. I had to face those who were waiting and tell them that I could not feed them, or I would be arrested.

In Denver, a charming law “makes it illegal for anyone to sleep or sit and cover themselves against the elements with anything except their clothing.” The presence of a blanket turns the offense into unauthorized camping, punishable by a fine or up to a year in jail. Flagstaff, Ariz., made news when an undercover police officer with nothing better to do than harass the homeless arrested a 77-year-old woman who asked for bus money. As the Love Wins writer points out, more than 50 large cities in America now have anti-camping and/or anti-food sharing laws.

Sometimes the goal appears to be to get the homeless people to go away. Apparently the heartless politicians that are passing these laws believe that if the homeless can’t get any more free food and if they keep getting thrown into prison for “illegal camping” they will eventually decide to go somewhere else where they won’t be hassled so much.

In Boise, Idaho, the American Civil Liberties Union is engaged in a federal lawsuit, “arguing that the city’s recently-passed anti-panhandling ordinance was in violation of the First Amendment…” While the the mayor’s office characterizes the law as “carefully crafted to prevent aggressive solicitation while still ensuring the protection of all citizens’ right to free speech,” ACLU board member Erika Birch disagrees:

The ordinance criminalizes certain speech and expression and specifically restricts words that a person can use in the City of Boise, particularly in the downtown core area. It goes too far and violates constitutionally [protected] speech.

The venerable organization has also succeeded in having Michigan’s anti-begging law, which has been in place for 85 years, declared unconstitutional. TakePart.com adds:

Just this year, the ACLU sued on behalf of homeless men and women opposing begging bans in Indianapolis, Indiana and Worcester, Massachusetts, among other cities, also as violations of free speech and peacefully soliciting money in public. The ACLU of Colorado sued the city of Colorado Springs last November, and an injunction was granted to stop their downtown panhandling ban until it was repealed in March.

The city council of Columbia, S.C., got off on the wrong foot earlier this fall by unanimously voting that people experiencing homelessness should be collected and sequestered in a 240-bed camp outside of town. They would be unable to leave without permission, and the place didn’t even have cooking facilities when this ambitious plan was set to begin. If they didn’t want to go there, the alternative would be jail. But even the police, who would be responsible for the rounding up and guarding, backed away from implementation. The interim police chief, Ruben Santiago, stated:

Homelessness is not a crime. We can’t just take people to somewhere they don’t want to go. I can’t do that. I won’t do that.

So the new plan is to give people a van ride to the shelter and let them stay as long as a week, voluntarily, while workers try to sort out how they can best be helped. The city also promises to install public restrooms and trash cans, and to institute a homeless court.

Hart Island

Bonus Homeless Death Trivia

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan, writing for Gizmodo, reported on a place whose existence is little known: a tiny island in New York City called Hart Island, “the largest publicly funded cemetery in the world.” In this modern-day potter’s field, there is one deceased person for every eight currently living New Yorkers. Their number is pretty darn close to a million, and a lot of them died homeless.

Currently run by the Department of Corrections, the mass graveyard is closed to the public and infamous for lousy record-keeping. If you were wondering whether prisoners bury the dead, the answer is yes. They do the final honors, presumably with the awareness that they will likely end up in this very same mass grave. A criminal record is practically a guarantee of lifelong unemployment. Furthermore, even working stiffs can’t afford places to live. A lot of both kinds of people end up homeless, so you do the math.

As a warning, the grim assignment is ineffective. No matter how sincerely a prisoner might intend to change his ways, the topography of society rarely permits a new start down a different path. Everyone chosen for this work detail has an excellent chance of winding up at the other end of a Hart Island shovel.

Reactions?

Source: “Pinkberry Co-Founder Convicted of Beating Homeless Man With Tire Iron,” Gawker.com, 11/08/13
Source: “It Is Illegal To Feed The Homeless In Cities All Over The United States,” JewsNews.co.il, 11/08/13
Source: “Urban Camping Ticket Issued to Woman for Trying to Stay Warm,” denverhomelessoutloud.org, 11/02/13
Source: “ACLU Sues City of Boise Over Anti-Panhandling Ordinance,” BoiseWeekly.com, 11/04/13
Source: “The Crime of Poverty: Some Homeless People Face Arrest for Asking for Help,” TakePart.com, 10/09/13
Source: “Columbia, South Carolina Rescinds Decision To Criminalize Homelessness,” HuffingtonPost.com, 09/09/13
Source: “What We Found at Hart Island, The Largest Mass Grave Site In the U.S.,” Gizmodo.com, 11/07/13
Image by David Trawin

 

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Happening Now: War on the Poor

War on the Poor

Today, problems aren’t solved, they’re attacked. Like the War on Poverty. Remember that? I’m happy to report that it’s finally over. The poor people have all surrendered.
— Swami Beyondananda

Yes, there used to be a thing called the War on Poverty, declared by a president named Lyndon B. Johnson. Although opinions about it differ, still, the War on Poverty was preferable to what we have now — the War on the Poor.

It’s not even an undeclared war, it’s right out there in the open. In different communities, the authorities come at it in different ways, sometimes direct, but often tangential, which is more difficult for homeless advocates to deal with. House the Homeless blog has reported extensively on the No-Sit, No-Lie Ordinance in its home city of Austin, Texas, and on similar measures in other places.

In a recent article for TakePart.com, Solvej Schou expressed concern that peaceful begging, just asking for food or money with no aggression involved, is increasingly being criminalized by anti-panhandling and anti-solicitation laws now in effect in nearly 200 American cities.

Alley Valkyrie, an activist in Eugene, Oregon, received a criminal trespass citation for touching a planter box outside a restaurant and made national news by publicizing the incident as an example of how selective enforcement can make life miserable for people experiencing homelessness. Also, Eugene has something called an “exclusion law” whereby a judge can ban from the city center people accused, but not even yet convicted, of certain crimes. This prevents folks in need from accessing services, and basically from even existing in the designated area, even though they are not officially guilty of anything.

Things are still hot in Miami, Florida, where just last month a federal judge heard ACLU attorneys argue against modification of the Pottinger Settlement Agreement, a piece of legislation peculiar to Miami. Around 15 years ago, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the city on behalf of all its people experienceing homelessness. The organization’s website says:

The landmark settlement — won after a decade of litigation involving two trials, two appeals, and nearly two years of mediation — protects homeless individuals from being harassed or arrested by law enforcement for the purpose of driving them from public areas.

Law Professor Stephen Schnably, who has been involved with this matter all along, adds:

Transforming downtown into a constitution-free zone for homeless people is a Faustian bargain with no payoff. Eviscerating the Pottinger protections — what the City is effectively seeking — would do nothing to make downtown more vibrant. All it would do is strip homeless people of the basic human and constitutional right not to be arrested or have their property destroyed just for being homeless.

Also last month, Memphis, TN, looked bad when a program called Room in the Inn, which provides one night of shelter for several individuals, was forbidden at a Methodist church in a neighborhood called Evergreen which had planned to participate. In order to have overnight guests, you see, a church must own at least five acres of property. In Spartanburg, SC, a church made itself look bad by refusing help from local atheists who wanted to volunteer at its soup kitchen. The atheists responded by deciding instead to distribute packets of health and grooming aids from a location across the street.

In Anaheim, CA, the city council went full speed ahead with the unanimous passing of an ordinance which “imposes a ban on camping in parks and other public spaces while allowing for the confiscation of property deemed abandoned.” In practical terms this means that the belongings of people experiencing homelessness can be seized and destroyed by the police while the owner is eating, showering, or using a restroom.

That battle has already been fought and won in Los Angeles, where the Ninth Circuit court decided that stealing such property violates the victims’ 4th and 14th Amendment rights, but Anaheim is going for it anyway. Even at the best of times, less than half of the city’s people experiencing homelessness can fit into the local shelter, but that does not stop Anaheim from attempting to make public sleeping a crime.

Learn at a glance

For an instantaneous education in the current state of homelessness, please consult the infographic.”Gimme Shelter: Homeless in America,” curated by Roslyn Willson. As would reasonably be expected in this genre, the facts are presented in visually elegant terms. The presentation format is especially journalist-friendly, with everything repeated in plain text, making it easy for a reporter or blogger to quote something. Well played, Ms. Willson! The same technique is shared by another infographic, “The War Against the Homeless,” so please check out both of them and see what you’ve been missing.

Source: “The Crime of Poverty: Some Homeless People Face Arrest for Asking for Help,” TakePart.com, 10/09/13
Source: “Activists: trespass tickets aimed at homeless,” KVAL.com, 03/10/12
Source: “ACLU of Florida Defends Historic Agreement Protecting Miami’s Homeless from Police Harassment in Federal Court,” ACLUFL.org, 10/23/13
Source: “City code stops certain churches from housing the homeless,” WMCTV.com, 10/25/13
Source: “Christianity makes monsters of people, part two: atheists banned from helping the homeless,” Freethinker.co.uk, 10/27/13
Source: “ACLU: Anaheim’s Anti-Homeless Crackdown Legally “Disingenuous’,” OCWeekly.com, 10/28/13
Image by Occupy.

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And Still More Ways to Become Homeless

Homeless (green)Songwriters Lou and Peter Berryman wrote a song in 2004 whose message is, unfortunately, still spot-on today. The lyrics suggest an astonishing number of ways to become homeless, and really the best idea would be to go to this page and marvel over the whole list. (It’s the first item in the “Comments” section.)

But here’s a sample:

One runaway truck, one slip in the muck
One stretch of bad luck: Homelessness
One family feud, one litigious old prude
One long bad mood: Homelessness
One toaster too hot, one investment that’s not
One tiny blood clot: Homelessness

Earlier this month, Mark and Sharon Ames and their three daughters moved from a cramped apartment into a rental house they had found via Craigslist, in a community near Los Angeles. They paid the $2,000 move-in stake and signed a lease. Then, wrote Kennedy Ryan of KTLA5:

On Wednesday, a woman identifying herself as the real property manager showed up at the home with a police officer and told them they had to leave immediately because they were trespassing.

The officer gave the Ames family less than an hour to vacate and stood over them while they gathered their possessions. They signed into a motel, and KTLA5 kindly published their electronic contact information in case anyone was inspired to help.

Eleanor Goldberg of The Huffington Post picked up the story and added even more disheartening details. The real landlord gratuitously had the family’s van towed, and as anyone who has ever gone through the hassle and expense of reclaiming a vehicle from the California police knows, that alone can ruin your entire month.

The scam artist found the Ames couple easy to fleece, because they both face extra challenges in dealing with life. Mark is an amputee with a prosthetic leg, and Sharon is a PTSD-disabled veteran. Ironically, Mark has done volunteer service with an organization that helps the homeless. Through their own difficulties and life experience, they understand that things can’t always be done in the conventional way:

They fell for the scam in part, Mark said, because the fake landlord preyed on their vulnerabilities. She told them that a major car accident had left her disabled and unable to talk on the phone. The two dealt with the paperwork completely through email…

… And ended up homeless.

Ready for a laugh?

For comic relief, here is a quote from the archives of writer Heather Murdock:

A Rwandan government program to stop people living in thatched houses as part of a plan to alleviate poverty left hundreds of Batwa Pygmy families homeless…

But that kind of stuff only happens in “developing” third-world countries, not in an enlightened and progressive place like the United States. Right?

Remember Hurricane Katrina, and all the people it made homeless, and how some of them were loaned FEMA trailers to live in? By December of 2010, there were still 221 of these trailers in New Orleans, still occupied by people who as yet, for whatever reasons, had no other place to live. City officials called them a blight, and warned the residents to get out or pay heavy fines amounting to $500 per day. The following month, Julianne Hing reported:

The trailers were never designed to be permanent housing. Many who stayed in them years after the storm stuck around not out of choice; they had nowhere else to go. For many in New Orleans, such remains the case today… With these final FEMA eviction notices, [Mayor] Landrieu sends the message that he’s determined to beautify the city, if not address housing accessibility issues for people who most need help.

Hing quoted Lance Hill of the Southern Institute for Education and Research:

The blight eradication program, if not done correctly, can become a poor-person eradication program.

It wasn’t until a year later that the last trailer left New Orleans. In the meantime, another story came from the beleaguered city, of an employed 58-year-old woman named Barbara Gabriel who had lived in a Housing Authority apartment since 1975. Her errant nephew was arrested for selling drugs, and gave her address to the police. So the Housing Authority prepared to throw her out. Blair S. Walker reported:

‘I did not give him permission to use my address,’ says Gabriel… ‘He doesn’t live with me and he is not on my lease.’ Gabriel had been targeted under a ‘one strike and you’re out’ policy established by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1996. ‘One strike’ allows housing authorities to evict tenants following one drug-related offense.

Even if the legal tenant knew nothing about it and had nothing to do with it. So remember the chilling refrain of the Berrymans’ song:

And don’t forget, it’s sad but true
Next time around it could be you

Reactions?

Source: “A portrait of Connecticut’s homeless,” Courant.com, 02/09/11
Source: “Family of 5 Homeless After Craigslist Rental Scam,” KTLA.com, 09/03/13
Source: “Vet with PTSD, Amputee Husband and Their 3 Kids Homeless,” The Huffington Post, 09/13/13
Source: “Rwandan Government Program to End Thatched Housing Leaves Pygmies Homeless,” Bloomberg.com, 05/31/11
Source: “New Orleans Dumps FEMA Trailers — and Maybe the People in Them,” Truth-Out.org, 01/04/11
Source: “Eviction Threat, for No Reason,” AARP.org, 09/01/10
Image by Bart Everson.

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More Ways to Become Homeless

Collecting BottlesIn connection with the release of the whitepaper “Prevent Homelessness at its Core,” House the Homeless examined several of the more heavily travelled paths to Skid Row, where the embarkation point is release from institutions such as prisons, hospitals, the military, and the foster care system. Those reasons account for hundreds of thousands of people experiencing homelessness. Astonishingly, a plethora of other ways exists for an American to become, overnight, part of an underclass that too many other Americans wish would just disappear.

Fire is an ever-popular way to lose not only possessions but hope, and headlines routinely report the number of newly homeless people caused by any residential conflagration. In one particularly sad instance in Toledo, Ohio, pastor Steve North had rented a big old house that was part church, as journalist Gabrielle Russon described:

LifeLine wasn’t a typical church where people wore their best clothes and worshiped on Sunday morning. Instead, nearly 100 people came to Mr. North’s house on the first Saturday of each month. They stayed up late, eating food, listening to open-mic poetry, and talking. It was a ministry for low-income residents, to help them feel like they belonged somewhere.

North had just been out volunteering at the local tent city when his own family’s house burned, and he and his wife and their two children became as homeless as the people they had lovingly served.

How bad does a situation have to be, for someone to choose homelessness? Every year, ridiculous numbers of teenagers decide to stop enduring abuse from family members or step-parents, and escape to the streets. Sometimes, if the person achieves a measure of fame, the world hears about it later. Tyler Perry, for instance, had to get away from a father “whose answer to everything was to beat it out of you.” The young man dropped out of school, took off, and lived in a car for a time. Thanks to his incredible determination and sterling work ethic, Tyler Perry because an immensely successful filmmaker and performer.

More ways

MSNBC reporter Seamus McGraw related the story of a beauty contest winner who told him, “Anyone can fall victim to this” — “this” being homelessness. Blair Griffith, whose father had died of cancer, was Miss Colorado Teen in 2006. After some time went by, her mother had a heart attack and required $800 worth of meds every month. Griffith won the title of Miss Colorado USA in 2011, and a month later, sheriff’s officers showed up with an eviction notice and removed Griffith and her mother from their home. Around the same time, the young woman also lost her day job. Fortunately, friends took them in and they were able to start rebuilding their lives.

In the public imagination, and to some extent in real life, addiction leads to homelessness. What some critics refuse to take into account is that not every person with a substance abuse problem got there voluntarily. This article from RitalinAbuseHelp.com emphasizes how many children have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and made to take pharmaceuticals. He writes:

… [A]dults who use Ritalin may have been diagnosed with the disorder at very young ages. Over time, doctors increase the dosages to deal with the changes in a patient’s weight and behavior, but somewhere along the way users may abuse the drug and become addicted… [A] drug meant to help now controls the individual, which can lead to losing a job, family and home.

A person can be brought low by one piece of serious bad luck, which often takes the form of a head injury. While researching a column about the organization Common Ground, journalist David Bornstein encountered a detail that brought him a “jolting realization”:

… [A]nybody could become like a homeless person — all it takes is a traumatic brain injury. A bicycle fall, a car accident, a slip on the ice, or if you’re a soldier, a head wound — and your life could become unrecognizable. James O’Connell, a doctor who has been treating the most vulnerable homeless people on the streets of Boston for 25 years, estimates that 40 percent of the long-term homeless people he’s met had such a brain injury.

Bornstein also spoke with Becky Kanis of Common Ground, who described a mindset that perceives the person experiencing homelessness as “almost in their DNA different from someone who has a house.” That is an excellent point. Despite the fact that someone without shelter is likely to be of any race or gender or age, the imagination of Mr. or Ms. J. Q. Public tends to classify the homeless person as somehow “other.” And as we have seen, it isn’t so. Bornstein wraps up the thought:

Many of the errors in our homelessness policies have stemmed from the conception that the homeless are a homogeneous group. It’s only in the past 15 years that organizations [...] have taken a more granular, street-level view of the problem — disaggregating the ‘episodically homeless’ from the ‘chronically homeless’ in order to understand their needs at an individual level.

Reactions?

Source: “Fire damages homeless advocate’s home,” ToledoBlade.com, 11/01/11
Source: “Tyler Perry biography,” Biography.com
Source: “Homeless Miss Colorado: ‘Anyone can fall victim to this’,” TODAY.com, 2012
Source: “The Relationship between Homelessness and Ritalin Addiction,” RitalinAbuseHelp.com
Source: “The Street-Level Solution,” The New York Times, 12/24/10
Image by Ed Yourdon.

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How to Become Homeless: Age Out of Foster Care

Homeless Youth in Dupont Circle, NYCalifornia is one of the biggest states in the union, and a lot of young people are experiencing homelessness there. Thanks to reporters like Bethania Palma Markus in Whittier, word of their plight occasionally reaches the eyes and ears of the public.

When she included the life story of 20-year-old Steven Navarrette in an article, he had “aged out” of the child welfare system two years earlier. Actually, the official Department of Children and Family Services (DCHS) word for it is “terminated,” which has ominous overtones indeed. It should, because at the time, one out of every five “terminated” kids ended up homeless and two out of five tangled with the legal system, and often ended up in prison.

Those ratios are necessarily only estimates, because there was no requirement for the bureaucracy to follow up on the kids once they were “terminated.” A youth fortunate enough to land one of the few transitional housing spots could be kept track of for a while, but most kids were just in the wind, with no way to make a living and no support system, legal adults for whom the state no longer took responsibility.

Markus quoted Navarrette, who told her:

They used to talk about something called emancipated living and I was always really excited about that because I knew I wouldn’t be able to go live with my mom. It all sounded really nice but when it came down to it none of what they told me ever happened.

Around the same time, California passed a law allowing foster children to stay in their “placements” until age 21, presumably with the state paying their way, although at the same time the governor drastically cut the child welfare funds. Presumably, the foster parents would have some say in the arrangements too, and one has to wonder how many of them welcome the continuing presence of young people older than they are accustomed to dealing with.

Also around the same time, a federal regulation came into existence that would require the pertinent departments in every state to keep a record of what kind of “independent living services” they provided for kids aging out.

Elsewhere

In Ohio, a pastor changed his own living quarters to a van and capitalized on the publicity this brought him by pointing out the need for transitional housing for 18-year-old former foster kids. The Salem Church of God has not yet been able to build any transitional housing, but its SOAR ministry persists in helping in other ways.

In Worcester, MA, many residents were distressed to learn that the local Teen Housing Task Force discovered 142 homeless youths in August of 2009, and counted 201 homeless youths in October of 2010, representing a 48% increase. In other words, one town’s population of homeless kids, some as young as 13, almost doubled in just over a year.

Journalist Lee Hammel continued the tradition by writing up the stories of an 18-year-old girl and a 19-year-old boy, in response to public interest in the question of how many unhoused young people were out there, whether because they had been released from the foster care system or thrown out by their parents, or whatever.

The Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts awarded $120,000 to a coalition of 20 state and local agencies. This was a “planning grant” — not to actually do anything about the situation, but to identify the causes of transition-age homelessness, and to analyze the available resources, with the expectation of receiving more funds once those tasks were done.

Maurie R. Bergeron of The Compass Project told the reporter:

There’s no saying how the money will be used here for homeless youths from 17 to 24 until the planning study is completed.

Since foster children were in the news anyway, a reporter took the opportunity to dish up a tidbit about Minnesota politician Michele Bachmann:

Foster children, who automatically qualify for Medicaid benefits, make up a tremendously disproportionate amount of its spending, especially on mental health services. Bachmann likely understands these difficulties better than anyone: all 23 of her foster children were teenage girls suffering from psychiatric disorders. In addition, her husband’s therapy clinic has taken in over $137,000 in Medicaid funds to help treat low-income patients.

Despite whatever agenda might have fueled the research, the important thing to note here is how foster children “make up a tremendously disproportionate amount of its spending, especially on mental health services.” And still… one out of five homeless, two out of five involved with the corrections system. The California solution of changing the emancipation age from 18 to 21 has no doubt benefited some young people, and hopefully will help many more to get their feet solidly under them before venturing forth into the world.

Unfortunately, this solution doesn’t do a darn thing for the taxpayers. With any individual child, it could go either way. For those who experience homelessness, public funds will be involved one way or another, especially if the youth happens to become involved with the legal system. For those who stay in the foster system for another year or two or three, before the court’s jurisdiction over them is terminated, the costs of routine care and medical care are still billed to the taxpayers.

These young people need training and preparation, and when they are turned loose, they — just like everybody else — need jobs that pay a living wage. Let’s work on that.

Reactions?

Source: “Rampant homelessness in former foster children yet to be addressed,” Whittier Daily News, 11/27/10
Source: “Outreach,” Salem Church of God
Source: “Increase in homeless youth in Worcester raises alarm,” Telegram.com, 02/12/11
Source: “Michele Bachmann’s Foster Care Contradiction,” TPM, 07/06/11
Image by Elvert Barnes.

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McDonald’s and the Living Wage

McDonald's Imgur

Tony Polombo is a columnist who, like Richard R. Troxell of House the Homeless, believes that a living wage is not the same as a minimum wage. They won’t be the same until the minimum wage is such that anybody who puts in a 40-hour workweek can afford food; clothing; safe, decent, basic housing (including utilities); public transportation; and access to the emergency room. A living wage, as its name implies, is one that a family can actually live on, not merely subsist or exist.

Some say that raising the national minimum wage would cause companies to lay off workers, and then unemployment would only increase. To them, Polombo makes this interesting point which is imbued with a dark and terrible humor:

As the many workers who are now doing the work that two or more other workers used to do can tell you — employers in general are already hiring the least number of employees they can get away with.

He brings up arguments of a kind that, due to a shortage of common sense, are not often heard. Check this out:

The US already has de facto living wage laws in the form of government safety net programs such as Food Stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit and Medicaid… But critics have (rightly, in my view) charged that government programs such as these are little more than corporate welfare…

You would think that the anti-government Tea Party types in Congress would want to eliminate much of the need for these government programs by making corporations pay their full share of a living wage…

Citizens who work for slightly more generous corporations all chip in via their income taxes. Then the government has money to help other workers who labor for the cheapskate corporations, so their employees can afford the necessities that ought to be covered by their paychecks but are not. Voila! Corporate welfare!

You can call it anything you want, but that doesn’t change the fact. Speaking of cheapskate companies, Polombo says:

The award for corporate chutzpah goes to McDonald’s who in a campaign aimed towards its workers, tries to convince them that it is possible to work a minimum wage McJob and still live comfortably — if only they would budget their money properly! They support this by a sample budget that apparently assumes a worker has a second job along with Food Stamps to pay for food and almost no expense for health insurance. Unbelievable!

Polombo is not the only journalist having a good time bashing McDonald’s and wondering, incidentally, what planet those people are from. For ThinkProgress.org, Annie-Rose Strasser gave the sample budget the once-over and called it “laughably inaccurate”:

Not only does the budget leave a spot open for ‘second job,’ it also gives wholly unreasonable estimates for employees’ costs: $20 a month for health care, $0 for heating, and $600 a month for rent. It does not include any budgeted money for food or clothing.

Actually, this would explain why no money is allotted for heating. A person with two jobs is never home to need the heat turned on, and can sleep wrapped in a Mylar space blanket which is available for quite a reasonable price at the surplus store, where they are sold for the convenience of mountain climbers who might get caught in blizzards. Strasser goes on to say:

For an uninsured person to independently buy health care, he or she must shell out on average $215 a month — just for an individual plan… If that person wants to eat, ‘moderate’ spending will run them $32 a week for themselves, and $867 a month to feed a family of four. And if a fast food worker is living in a city? Well, New York City rents just reached an average of $3,000 a month.

And here is a question. Considering that this phantom budget was concocted by McDonald’s with the help of Visa — what about credit card bills? Many Americans pay huge amounts of interest every month to credit card companies, and not always for luxuries and frivolities. And people, yes, even fast-food employees, have student loans to pay back. And where is the item for child care, for which anyone with one or more children and two jobs will at some point have to pay? Even a doting grandma needs a $20 tucked into her apron pocket every now and then.

But there is no point in nitpicking, when the basic assumption of the budget — that everybody should work two jobs — is so blatantly unacceptable. The only upside is that employees can, as comic Stephen Colbert suggests, go to both employers’ Christmas parties and surreptitiously fill their pockets with buffet food. That may get them through the holiday week, but what about the rest of the year? And how many McDonald’s executives work a second job? What planet are these people from, anyway?

Reactions?

Source: “A Living Wage for Americans,” The World According to Tony Polombo, 08/01/13
Source: “McDonalds Tells Workers To Budget By Getting A Second Job And Turning Off Their Heat,” ThinkProgress.org, 07/15/13
Image by Imgur.com.

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KFC Says, Get a Job — LOL!

Kentucky Fried ChickenLast June, this Question & Answer appeared in the online forum ExpertLaw.com:

Question:

Is it legal for an employer to deny employment to an individual who they consider otherwise qualified, if it is discovered that the individual currently lives in a homeless shelter?

Short answer: yes. Neither federal anti-discrimination laws nor most state anti-discrimination laws preclude disparate treatment/employment discrimination against individuals residing in a homeless shelter. (ESteele, Senior Member)

A few weeks ago, in Tupelo, MS, after months of job-hunting, Eunice Jasica found work and seemed to be on track for the next phase of life — saving up to move out of the Salvation Army lodge. But when she reported for her first day on the job, fast-food franchise owner Chesley Ruff withdrew the offer of employment “due to lack of residence and transportation.”

Say what? Then, a couple of days later, the manager backpedaled and said his refusal to honor the hire was really because Ms. Jasica had no experience in the difficult and demanding field of fast-food preparation. Plus, he doubted that the 59-year-old woman could lift the 40-pound boxes in which the food arrives. So never mind, no job after all.

Adding insult to injury, he implied that the job applicant had misunderstood and was delusional about having been hired in the first place. This shabby treatment is legal according to both the great state of Mississippi and the Kentucky Fried Chicken corporation. Reporter Emily Le Coz writes:

KFC operates more than 5,200 restaurants nationwide and follows all applicable employment laws, but its independent franchisees make their own hiring decisions, said KFC Corp. spokesman Rick Maynard.

Mississippi is an at-will employment state. That means the employer or employee can terminate the relationship at any time for any reason as long as it doesn’t violate anti-discrimination statutes based on factors like race, age, color, religion, sex, national origin or disability.

In Tupelo, Maj. Sue Dorman of the Salvation Army was shocked, possibly because this didn’t fit with Mr. Ruff’s customary behavior. He had previously hired a man who was not only homeless but a former convict, who had done very well in the business, and whose success story had been featured in a newspaper. The same manager had also hired other Salvation Army residents in the past. Dorman called Ruff, who told it is not company policy to hire people who don’t have stable housing or transportation, which made it sound more like a corporate-level matter.

And indeed, when The Huffington Post made inquiries, Ruff had nothing to say, but referred questions to the chicken vendor’s head of media relations, Rick Maynard, who emailed:

KFC Corporation believes in a culture of respect toward all people, and we abide by all applicable employment laws. The restaurant in Tupelo is operated by an independent franchisee who shares our beliefs, but is responsible for making hiring decisions for the restaurant he owns.

So this was starting to resemble what is colloquially called a runaround. Meanwhile, the Huffington Post story garnered well over 1,000 comments from all over the map, both geographically and philosophically. Typical is the response of “EarthMonkey07,” who wrote:

So now in order to even get a job, you can’t appear to need it in any way? You need to already be employed (since the statistics say they won’t hire you if you’re already unemployed), housed (since they won’t hire you without an address), with transportation (they won’t hire you if you don’t have a vehicle) AND have a bank account (because they won’t hire you if you can’t do direct deposit). This is getting crazy.

Exactly. And the craziness is not exclusive to the USA. A report from a prominent organization in Great Britain, St. Mungo’s, revealed that two out of three homeless job seekers had been rejected for employment because of their homeless condition. Half had found the lack of a mailing address to be an obstacle, and two out of three lacked the appropriate clothing, tools or equipment for the jobs they applied for. Universally, even those who are lucky (or adept at hiding their true circumstances) find that the low-paying jobs they land do not come near to providing enough for housing anyway.

The really imposing feature of the St. Mungo’s report was the contrast between 1986 figures, showing that 83% of the homeless people surveyed then had some kind of paid employment, and their 2005 numbers, which revealed only 5% of their homeless clients holding jobs.

Meanwhile, because of the publicity surrounding this debacle, Ms. Jasica received several other job offers and was “tentatively hired” by On Time Transportation to drive Medicare and Medicaid patients to their doctors’ appointments. While this promises a happy ending for her particular story, many other homeless people throughout the country are not so fortunate.

Not surprisingly, House the Homeless has been involved in this struggle for years. Its Homeless Employment Survey of 2007 inspired the state of California to conduct a similar survey in 2009. Here is House the Homeless co-founder Richard R. Troxell’s candid response to Eunice Jasica’s plight:

Very sad. I for one am outraged! So while the Puritan Work Ethic remains intact for someone who has lost all of their worldly possessions, the compassion, empathy and love for one’s fellow human being has dissipated like water on the sidewalk. Shame on that franchise and shame on KFC for allowing this act of inhumanity to occur in their name. It’s only a matter of time before people will no longer accept this kind of treatment. Then what? There are 3.5 million people experiencing homelessness again this year.

In the Sacramento survey, 70% of the respondents identified the reason for their homeless condition as economic, 87% wanted to work and felt they were able to, and 42% identified their homelessness as the most significant barrier to working. Lack of transportation, as always, plays a big part in the employment equation. One of the recommendations resulting from this survey was:

Expand mail, email and voicemail services: We recommend universal coverage of a mailing address, email and voicemail services for homeless people to dramatically increase their chances for employment.

This excellent idea is, of course, one of the things that objectors are currently complaining about. They are against any plans that are put forward to provide cell phones to the homeless, because why should street people get fancy technology for free? And so it goes…

Reactions?

Source: “Q & A,” ExpertLaw.com, 06/06/12
Source: “Woman fired for being homeless,” ClarionLedger,com, 03/21/13
Source: “Eunice Jasica Claims KFC Franchise Reneged Job Offer…,The Huffington Post, 03/28/13
Source: “Hard Work for Homeless People,” samhsa.gov, 2005
Source: “Homeless Employment Report: Findings and Recommendations,” National Coalition for the Homeless, August 2009
Image by Joe Schlabotnik.

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