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The SRO — a Much-Needed Housing Solution

The constant shrinkage of the SRO stock (the number of Single Room Occupancy rooms) in America is shameful, and for various historical reasons San Francisco has been particularly hard hit. Recently, Frances Saux wrote:

A 1979 study counted 26,884 SRO units in San Francisco, and those numbers were diminishing. By 2011, the number of residential units stood at 18,910. Those numbers have gone up slightly; in 2015, the city reported a total of 19,166 units, but that includes units that are no longer affordable to low-income residents. Of the Mission’s nearly 1,000 SRO units, 75 — or 8 percent — had become unaffordable for low-income residents by 2015.

Another source says that since the 1970s, more than a third of the city’s SRO stock has disappeared. Many bad things have happened to these buildings, like arson fires set by landlords who wanted to get rid of indigent tenants and build something new and expensive. The Mission SRO Collaborative formed to raise tenant awareness about that danger.

In 2012, a survey carried out buy a coalition of nonprofit agencies learned that “as many as half of SRO residents lived in buildings where there was no elevator, or one that wasn’t always accessible because it wasn’t always working.” Thousands of elderly and disabled tenants were stuck having to walk up and down many flights of stairs, or stay marooned in their rooms.

In 2014, an estimated 30,000 people lived in San Francisco’s SRO dwellings. In that same year a tourist guide, TripAdvisor.com, spoke quite frankly:

In many cities today, SROs are often associated with the homeless, sometimes with just plain bums. Local government, social service agencies, and parole authorities use these, quite frankly, to dump people who aren’t placeable elsewhere. Poor retired law-abiding people who can’t afford apartments may live near chronic street people, criminals, felony parolees, people recovering (either genuinely or supposedly) from substance abuse, the mentally ill, and others who can’t quite fit into the mainstream.

The literature went on to lament that families who can’t find other shelter often live with several people to a room in SRO establishments, and strongly implied that tourists would really be better off somewhere else. Which actually is a great idea. Stay away, tourists, and leave the poor people’s housing alone.

Elderly, low-income, and disabled tenants have always needed protection from rapacious property owners. In more recent years, SROs have been important for undocumented people. Landlords know how difficult it is to find a place. Tenants are unlikely to complain about leaks or bugs, or otherwise “make trouble” for a landlord when they face a very real risk of winding up homeless or worse.

It is hard to keep track of all the political and financial maneuvering that affects housing. In 1981, San Francisco passed Ordinance 41, whose object was to stop the loss of single residential units via conversion or demolition. Apparently the local ordinances around housing have loopholes that allow an SRO to renovate a room and raise the rent to whatever the market will bear.

And SROs have been renting out rooms via Airbnb, which has in fact been class-action sued by a group of tenants in the Tenderloin district. Obviously, when a property owner has access to wealthy tourists and visiting executives with expense accounts, why should they waste their time with tenants who receive government assistance?

Why indeed? Except for the crazy notion that humans should let human needs triumph over greed.

Reactions?

Source: “SF Mission residential hotels renovated for wealthier tenants,” MissionLocal.org, 08/19/17
Source: “San Francisco lawmakers pass SRO rental cap,” Curbed.com, 02/01/17
Source: “When is a ‘hotel’ not a HOTEL? — TA Guide to SROs,” Tripadvisor.com, 08/08/14
Photo by Daniel X. O’Neil on Visualhunt/CC BY

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Housing Solutions Shunned and Ignored

Ace Backwords, who has written extensively on homeless issues, used to live in a single-room occupancy building (SRO) in Berkeley, California. Although he employs an inelegant synonym, that’s what he’s talking about here:

If they want to solve the homeless problem, one of the first things they need to do is start building thousands and thousands of flophouses. Cheap, little rooms with a bed and a sink in them, and a bathroom down the hall. Unfortunately, they’re a dying breed: flophouses. In fact, a couple months after I moved out of the one on 2nd Street, the phone company bought the building, paid off all the tenants a thousand bucks each to “re-locate” and then turned it into one more bland corporate office building.

In his book Looking Up at the Bottom Line, House the Homeless co-founder and President Richard R. Troxell fondly remembers SROs, of which the country used to have several million. Sometimes, in special cases, a collection of units in a hotel-like structure can be more than just a place to live. Richard describes Garden Terrace, Austin’s last SRO facility with supportive housing, where 85 residents lived semi-independently, with food and case management provided, for a nominal amount of rent. At the time, he said, “It is considered transitional housing, but no one can afford the housing to transition into.”

Richard reminisces about the YMCA, which still rents out rooms in some cities, but they all seem to have different rules. In one place, the nightly fee is $50; in another, a year’s minimum lease is required; and so on. But in the old days, says Richard:

On a nightly basis, you could lay down your $5 or $10 and get a decent, clean room with a place to stash your things, get up to an alarm clock, go down the hall in the morning to a shared bathroom, and then head off to work — showered, shaved, refreshed and ready to put in a full day’s work. You could chase the American Dream… Today, the YMCAs do not exist in any significant number.

One after another, SRO buildings fall, sometimes with a great deal of commotion. Truth-out writers Toshio Meronek and Andrew Szeto interviewed long-time activist Charlie Fredrick about the tumultuous events in San Francisco in the 1970s:

As the city closed and demolished many of its SROs, the International Hotel — which housed almost 150 low-income Chinese and Filipino seniors — became a symbol for the war between real estate interests and activists. Years of protest eventually sparked a court battle over whether city funds should go to buying the “I”-Hotel and handing it over to tenants groups, with the seniors being publicly supported by a range of high-profile left activist groups… Ultimately, the tenants of the “I”-Hotel lost the fight.

In 2014, there were still more than 500 SROs in San Francisco. Meronek and Szeto wrote about the Altamont, a hotel in the Mission District. Most of its rooms were rented long-term by people helped financially by HUD. The rooms (normally 11’x14′) were described as “barely larger than the size of a prison cell” with shared bathrooms and kitchens.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. A very large number of people do not want to own houses or condos. They don’t want to shovel snow, mow a lawn, redecorate the foyer, or even cook meals from scratch. They just want to carry out the basic activities of life in a clean and no-hassle space where all the utilities function. Unfortunately, housing developers only want to build more McMansions and fancy condominiums with fireplaces and hand-clap light switches.

Reactions?

Source: “Don’t Look Back,” WordPress.com, 07/19/14
Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Amazon.com
Source: “Single-Room Occupancy Buildings: Last Bastion of Affordable Housing in San Francisco?,” Truth-out.org, 11/15/14
Photo by WalterPro on Visualhunt/CC BY

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The Somewhat Discouraging Universe of Tiny Homes

House the Homeless recently mentioned a very bare-bones type of individual housing unit, containing only bed, desk, and shelves, that costs $25,000 apiece. (Coincidentally, this is the same amount that American taxpayers shelled out for a “privacy booth” to be built inside the office of the head of the Environmental Protection Agency.) But if that sounds excessive, prepare for worse to come.

A British entrepreneur has come up the iKozie, a pod “designed to provide temporary accommodation for the homeless.” In this transitional scenario, the tenant will pay the rent and water bills and buy their own food, as training to become a fully functional member of society.

The pod contains a bedroom, full kitchen, bathroom “module,” and entertainment zone, all within 186 square feet. It is said to comply with planning and building regulations, “and has an A rating for energy efficiency.” A crane had to be rented to install the prototype in a volunteer’s backyard, which must add considerably to the tiny unit’s cost — close to $53,000 American.

Even that is an amazing deal, compared with Portland’s pods, whose cost is projected to be a jaw-dropping $75,000 each, paid for by public and private funds. (Wouldn’t a used RV set up on blocks be more economical?)

Leanna Garfield reports:

Each 200-square-foot pod will have a unique design… The pods will be able to house one adult and two children — inside, there will be a bed (some have bunk beds), shelves, a toilet, and a desk. They’ll all come with heat and full plumbing.

In Portland, some 200 homeowners have indicated preliminary willingness to host a pod in their backyard. The people who move in are meant to pay a certain amount of rent, while receiving the same social services as the city’s other sheltered homeless citizens.

This summer the program started with four families. Multnomah County is home to an estimated 4,000 unhoused people, so pricey mini-homes in backyards will not be the whole solution.

HGTV, which hosts a lot of tiny-house shows, defines a tiny house as anything up to 600 square feet. This is actually capacious, compared to similar products, being for example three times the size of the iKozie. Sadly, the production company seems coy about price information, and the general impression is that their designs are more for the wealthy retiree than the struggling former homeless person.

It gets better

Is there a lower end to this spectrum? Yes. In the spring of 1915, an audacious experiment was underway in Wisconsin. After months of struggle, a group called Occupy Madison (OM) oversaw the building of three tiny houses by their prospective tenants. Even equipped with electric heaters, the structures only cost $4,000 apiece. A pre-existing commercial building holds bathrooms, a minimalist kitchen, dining room, workshop, and greenhouse.

The city considered allowing six more tiny houses to be built, if certain improvements were made. Apparently, bathrooms are the concern. Authorities often have a strange perspective on things. They tend to act as if, rather than live where several people share a bathroom, a human being is better off in the wild with no bathroom.

In this particular community, the homes are meant to be permanent, not transitional. OM is situated on private land and funded by private donations. One school of thought says the government should save tax dollars by encouraging this sort of project, but governments often find many reasons not to.

In Seattle, an organization built 14 tiny houses at a cost of about $2,200 apiece. Their size, 8×12 feet, or 76 square feet, is really minuscule, but each unit has insulation, electricity, and heat. Toilets and showers are in a central building. These are meant to be temporary places to regroup while attempting to make more permanent arrangements, and residents pay $90 a month toward the utility bills.

Maybe the federal housing authorities could encourage cities to be more inventive and adventurous about creating housing for people with very low incomes. The problem is not a shortage of know-how. Every day, some college student wins an award for designing an inexpensive small dwelling with basic amenities.

The problem is not a lack of materials that can be recycled and repurposed. The problem is not a shortage of volunteers eager to build something. The problem is not a lack of participation from the people who will live in tiny houses.

The problem is, very few settled people are willing to have a tiny-house village anywhere near them. Or a single tiny house in a neighbor’s backyard. Or in their own backyard. And often, even if the property owners who are directly concerned, and their neighbors, are on board, the housed people from other parts of the city will feel threatened, and throw a monkey wrench into the machinery.

Reactions?

Source: “Micro-house costing just £40,000 is unveiled,” DailyMail.co.uk, 08/30/17
Source: “Portland will start housing the homeless in tiny pods in people’s backyards,” BusinessInsider.com, 03/22/17
Source: “Tiny houses in Madison, Wis., offer affordable, cozy alternative to homelessness,” StarTribune.com, 03/16/15
Source: “Tiny-house villages: An innovative solution to homelessness?,” CSMonitor.com, 01/21/16
Photo credit: Tomas Quinones via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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Tiny Homes: The Problem Beneath the Problem

How many kinds of small, self-contained dwellings are there? Dozens, at least. Every day smart and compassionate people figure out how to transform just about anything into minimalist living quarters.

There are miniature geodesic domes, Conestoga huts, and Cardborigami collapsible, transportable shade structures. There are tiny houses made of hempcrete, which repels mold, rodents and insects; and hemp grows quickly and economically almost anywhere. There are not-so-tiny houses made from shipping containers.

A design website relates how University of Southern California architecture students invented shelters, including a combined shopping cart and tent. In response to one assignment, students…

[…] conceived a village consisting of modular units measuring 92 square feet (8.5 square metres). Some contain bedrooms, while others are combined to form bathroom facilities and communal rooms. The complex also is designed to have outdoor terraces and courtyards.

However, a report from a different publication brings up some troubling questions. For MercuryNews.com, Susan Abram describes one Homes for Hope unit as a “mini-modular home” that includes only bed, desk, and shelves. In other words, toilets, showers, and kitchens belong in other units, to be communally shared.

The writer comments on the highly portable rectangles:

Made of a steel frame with structural insulated panels and aluminum cladding, the units resemble camper shells, with sliding windows. They can be heated and cooled, and stacked to create a community on vacant lots for 30 people or less. Social services, a community space and bathroom facilities also could be provided with additional funding.

Let’s just pause for a moment and reflect on that sentence. “Bathroom facilities could also be provided.” Ya think? Abram explains the state law under which “emergency housing of no more than 30 beds can be opened in certain districts within a community” with no conditional use permit required.

Sounds like a stroll in the park, right? Wrong. She quotes some facts learned from project mentor Sofia Borges:

The next step is to get the units state certified so that the teams can begin mass production, Borges said. “If we get the unit itself pre-certified we don’t have to go through the permitting process each time we want to make more.”

That certification process, along other fees and licensing will cost $100,000. Individual units would cost about $25,000.

In what universe should the state be demanding a $100,000 bribe to okay such a simple item that could help so many people? The government presumably has a stake in housing the homeless. Why can’t it just give the green light? And $25,000 apiece, to make a cube with a bed, desk, and shelves in it? Really?

Endless creativity and originality are expended on turning out structures that are, in some cases, only a grade above cardboard boxes. Which is fine, because on a cold night, even a sheet of aluminum between you and the wind can make all the difference.

Based on rationales that range from baffling to incomprehensible, very few locales allow these minimalist solutions. The whole “tiny house” genre is riddled with restrictions, sanctions, ordinances, contradictions, and highly idiosyncratic rules — depending on the jurisdiction the project happens to lie in. In some places, a distinction is made between an actual dwelling and a “pod,” which might be a basic, no-frills box, and as long as it stays beneath a certain size, it’s allowed.

Dream pods

Two Januaries ago, Tucson, Arizona, was all in a tizzy over “dream pods,” basically plywood crates not much bigger than coffins, that activists constructed and brought downtown for people to live in. In March, after much controversy, orders were issued that they all had to go, along with every tent, lean-to, etc. Some of the dream pods were moved to the grounds of a church where they continued to be inhabited.

The problem beneath the problem is, literally, the rock-solid dilemma on which everything rests. It’s not that there aren’t enough housing units to live in, because there easily could be. There is plenty of encouragement for the recycling and repurposing of parts and materials. An enormous amount of ingenuity has been spent in designing units.

Among people experiencing homelessness and caring citizens, there is a great potential pool of volunteer labor. There is government money and private charity money — never as much as we might wish — but it is there, and obtainable by determined individuals and groups willing to do the work. But there is virtually nowhere to put tiny homes. Nobody wants shipping containers, or even storybook-cute mini-houses, anywhere near where they are.

Reactions?

Source: “California architecture students design shelters for LA’s growing homeless population,” Dezeen.com, 02/22/17
Source: “Can these small pods bring a big solution for California cities’ homeless crisis?,” MercuryNews.com, 10/13/17
Source: “‘Dream pods’ removed from Tucson homeless camp,” Tucson.com, 03/13/15
Photo credit: Laura LaVoie (wheezinggirl) via Visualhunt/CC BY

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How to Become Homeless: Get Burned Out

For The New York Times, Kirk Johnson and Conor Dougherty interviewed people experiencing homelessness for the first time in the California city of Santa Rosa. Some consider themselves lucky to have grabbed cell phones, passports and a few clothes before fleeing the deadly blazes. (If you don’t have time to read the whole article, look for the story of a man named John Page.)

Most of the fire refugees who gathered at a donation center did not even have “the paper trail of their lives: deeds and marriage licenses, tax files and social security cards.” Formerly secure Americans are learning the hell of being without documents, a condition all too familiar to both the chronically and temporarily homeless people of America.

Of the estimated 100,000 Northern California evacuees, some travelled as far as 70 miles to take refuge in San Francisco and Oakland, which were pretty crowded already, and expensive. A lot of those folks have nothing left to go back to. The cost in human lives is terrible with 40 people already known to have died.

NIMBY all over again

An old joke goes, “What’s the difference between a developer and an environmentalist? The developer wants to build a house in the woods; the environmentalist already has one.” This has been part of the problem in the state’s counties of Napa and Sonoma, where new housing starts come nowhere near to matching the number of new residents.

The people who work in San Francisco and Silicon Valley have to live somewhere, but there is resistance to building in rural areas. The reporters also cite…

[…] the complexities of California’s housing, zoning and building regulations, and the environmental problems involved in cleaning up home sites made toxic by the ash from the fire.

Climate change increasingly plays a part in the likelihood of more fires. Tribune News Service describes the recent past and the probable future:

Six years of drought was followed by record winter snow and rain, followed by record heat from April through September. Santa Rosa hit 110 degrees Sept. 1, a record high for the date. Five weeks later parts of the city caught fire, destroying hundreds of homes and businesses. Worse extremes can be expected in coming decades.

Some Santa Rosa evacuees are sleeping at the Sonoma Fairgrounds on Red Cross cots. Others are 20 miles away at a shelter manned by the National Guard. What will change in the aftermath of the current fire disaster? Housing prices were already ridiculously high and can only get worse, now that nearly 6,000 buildings have been destroyed. There will be many things to consider, in future housing plans, including better escape routes.

No one is exempt

Recent events make it very clear that people experiencing homelessness are not a different species. A fire can happen to anybody. Almost everyone knows someone whose life was changed irrevocably by a fire. Fire plays no favorites, and some of the narratives contain painful irony. For instance, a 2012 story (that has not been archived on the Internet) described how a Syracuse, New York, couple who had devoted their lives to helping the homeless, were themselves made homeless by a fire.

Seemingly senseless accidents happen, like when a toaster jammed and burned a house leaving an Iowa family of five homeless. In 2015, in Minnesota, a family that had been doubling up with relatives for three months finally completed the formalities and complied with the regulations to move into a house they were buying. The were in residence for only two weeks when a fire made them homeless again.

Sometimes it’s nature, and sometimes human malice is to blame. In January of this year, an apartment fire left 18 people homeless. The man arrested and charged with arson had a grudge against one of the tenants, and had made a previous attempt to burn the building. All kinds of things can happen.

House the Homeless has mentioned T.C. Boyle, whose novel The Tortilla Curtain sketched a heartbreaking picture of the existence of undocumented workers living in a ravine on less than nothing. His newer book, A Friend of the Earth, projects the bleak outlook for the California of the future. When a reporter asked for a remark on the current fires, Boyle said:

People say I was prescient by what I predicted for 2025. The sad joke is I should have said 2015. It is frightening how quickly we got here.

Reactions?

Source: “Fires Leave Many Homeless Where Housing Was Already Scarce,” NYTimes.com, 10/15/17
Source: “Wildfires and weather: Doom fiction called California reality,” WatertownDailyTimes.com, 10/16/17
Source: “Unattended Toaster Sparks Fire, Leaving Family of Five Homeless,” SiouxlandProud.com, 07/26/15
Source: “Previously homeless Winona family loses new home in fire,” KTTC.com, 10/11/15
Source: “Arrest In Buffalo Fire That Left 18 Homeless,” WGRZ.com, 01/22/17
Photo credit: Orin Zebest via Visualhunt/CC BY

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Resistance, Advocacy, and Ambivalence in Maspeth

In Maspeth, which is part of Queens in New York City, a Holiday Inn became a homeless shelter. In April, some locals sued the mayor on technical grounds related to the building’s certificate of occupancy, but apparently an uneasy truce is now in effect.

But the permanent residents are vigilant. A woman filed a FOIA request (subsequently denied) for information on the shelter residents, particularly “employment information, last known addresses, reasons for their homelessness, drug use and length of stay.” In August, a headline read, “Cops say this couple has been breaking into Maspeth homes in broad daylight.” (Not the couple pictured on our page, by the way.)

According to the article on QNS.com:

Police have released images of a man and a woman responsible for a burglary pattern in Maspeth, hitting two homes within a span of three days in broad daylight…

In other words, the pair tried but failed to break into one house, and successfully broke into another and stole things, if that can be called a pattern. Obviously, some journalistic sensationalizing is in play, but, surprisingly, the local news sources are reticent about connecting crimes to the formerly homeless population. Strangely, a blog about local affairs never mentions the shelter at all.

Outside friction

A story from Gothamist is titled, “Ask A Native New Yorker: Is It Wrong To Hate Homeless People?” It quotes lively discussions between journalists, members of the affected community, and people who are neither. It illustrates, among other things, the proneness of trolls to deploy “straw man” arguments.

A person known as “Maspeth Sympathizer” wrote:

No one wants some 20 year old baby breeder and her litter of kids scrubbing off the good hardworking taxpayers.

However, the original Maspeth plan was to create a 110-bed shelter for adult families, defined as couples and families with children older than 18. Using rude and crude language, the same New Yorker voiced the frustrations felt by people who work hard to buy a piece of property with a house on it, and then find their communities playing host to people experiencing homelessness.

Nice middle-class neighborhoods are rare in the metropolis. They are populated by workers who “clean the streets, run the public transportation system, enforce the law, put out the fires, pick up the trash, teach our future and hold the doors open for the snobs who can’t be bothered.”

Clash of cultures

Critics say that people who live in shelters mess up their neighborhoods, and this is an understandable complaint. Parents whose kids play in the local park don’t want broken glass to suddenly start showing up. The obvious retort is that not all people experiencing homelessness are poorly socialized semi-barbarians who were raised in dumpsters with rats for pets.

The families in the shelter might have been traumatically transplanted from a nice middle-class community just like Maspeth. These days, almost no one in America is immune to the threat of homelessness.

A knee-jerk reaction would be to fence the park, limit the hours, convince the police to make a strong presence, or hire security guards. But it doesn’t have to be like that. What if community members went a bit out of their way for a while, and put in a little extra effort?

Local parents could spend more time at the park with their kids, getting healthy exercise and demonstrating by example how to treat a shared public space. Churches could create a welcoming atmosphere. A good-hearted intention to enfold newcomers, rather than repel them, could probably make a considerable difference in many instances.

Some kind of humane approach would certainly accomplish more good than the random pronouncement of blanket generalizations, like the following:

This homeless shelter in Maspeth, like all homeless shelters, is going ruin the neighborhood. There isn’t a neighborhood with a homeless shelter that hasn’t been ruined.

Gothamist publisher Jake Dobkin begs to differ, citing peaceful assimilation in several areas of NYC, both rich and poor. He suggests that what’s really going on is simple fear. Housed people live in terror of the prospect of homelessness, as well they should, because then they might be treated with the same scorn they pour on others now.

Dobkin diagnoses, and advises:

It’s much easier to believe that these people are sub-human trash, rather than just normal people who had the bad luck of being poor in an expensive city—because if you believed that, there’s nothing that could guarantee you’d never end up facing the same problem. Rather than pointing at the poor shelter residents, who are mainly the victims of bad luck and stratospherically-priced housing, you’d be better off directing your anger at the people who really have power in our city’s real estate market: the rich developers and the politicians whom they control.

A bigger picture

It is characteristic of the NIMBY mindset to believe that homeless shelters should only be for people who were rendered homeless in that exact locale. The woman who petitioned the government for personal information was hung up on a 2014 statistic that claimed only four homeless families in Maspeth, and wanted to prove that most of the shelter residents came from other places.

That is an absurdly local perspective. Looked at on a larger scale, out of 12,000 families in the NYC “system” only 135 families (or less than 2%) are from places other than New York City.

The disgruntled “Maspeth Sympathizer” notes that homeless families tend to consist of women and children, with the fathers always missing. Deeper thought and more compassion would promote the understanding that often these families are homeless precisely because the father was taken from them — often by legal action.

It is no secret that minority-group males are accused, convicted, and incarcerated in numbers that do not line up with statistical probability. In city and county jails and state and federal prisons, the black and Hispanic inmate count is wildly disproportionate to the corresponding demographics of the population as a whole. And besides, people in places like Maspeth resent being called racist, when they are merely anti-homeless.

Reactions?

Source: “‘Homeless Holiday Inn’ sparks lawsuit against mayor,” NYPost.com, 04/24/17
Source: “Cops say this couple has been breaking into Maspeth homes in broad daylight,” QNS.com, 08/22/17
Source: “Ask A Native New Yorker: Is It Wrong To Hate Homeless People?,” Gothamist.com, 09/09/16
Photo credit: Steve Baker via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND

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Homeless Tropes and Archetypes

graffiti-and-pile-of-stuffThere are reasons why a reporter chooses a certain individual for the “Face of Homelessness” type of article, just as there are reasons for picking the ideal subject for a “Face of Single Motherhood” story or a “Face of Traumatic Brain Injury” story. Last week, House the Homeless looked at a long profile written by John Flynn and Matt Kramer of Sacramento.

Their subject was Russell Bartholow, a Native American man who had been homeless for 15 years after a series of familial, medical and legal misfortunes. Russell had collected, at that time, 190 citations related to his lack of a permanent abode.

The things that happened to him as a person experiencing homelessness are typical of the experiences of many other homeless people. He had lost all his teeth. On the streets, he had been severely beaten several times, and once was set on fire, which resulted in a long, painful, and expensive (to the taxpayers) hospital stay.

A basic absence of justice

Homeless people are told to get jobs if they expect to eat, and told to stop begging and to quit trying to live off the fat of the land, and to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and so on and so forth. Not only are they blamed for their condition, but when they attempt to better themselves they are punished for it.

For instance, Russell Bartholow decided to feed himself by planting a garden. At a 2015 press conference publicizing the (unsuccessful) Right to Rest Act, he told a crowd at the State Capitol building about this foray into self-reliance. The writers quote him:

I had a beautiful garden, spent two-and-a-half years growing it. They came in and poisoned it with herbicide. Destroyed it.

How have we managed to create a world where growing food is illegal? Aside from all the other obvious and blatant absurdities of this stance, there is the hypocrisy issue. How can society yell about jobs — as if getting one were so easy — and berate people experiencing homelessness, and then prosecute those same people for growing food to feed themselves?

It was not his best-ever decision, but, Bartholow decided to eat the remaining vegetables, and fell sick. He believes the chemicals gave him cancer, though he might have already had it. While hospitalized, he saw his niece’s name in the local newspaper and reached out to her. In February of 2015, they met, and Jessica Bartholow became an advocate.

Flynn and Kramer describe how she turned things around:

Jessica had to overturn official government records declaring Russell deceased. She then got to work securing Russell a birth certificate, an identification card, a cellphone, Supplemental Security Income, health insurance and a spot at a methadone clinic.

There, he met an old friend who needed a roommate, giving Russell a place to live after shelters and hotels had turned him down due to lack of space and/or Russell’s lack of paperwork. He made friends on Facebook and reconnected with his son, Kieran.

“It was a couple months of advocacy, just a couple of hours at a time,” Jessica said of that period. “It didn’t take that much to find somebody a home and dignity and safety.”

She did not stop with helping her uncle, but became an activist for the Right to Rest legislation. Russell Bartholow also became a signature gatherer, but lived his remaining months in fear and uncertainty. There were still dozens of active warrants out on him, mostly for failure to appear in court to face various accusations, such as sleeping in the wrong place.

In this way, he was like many other people experiencing homelessness, who avoid contact with authorities because once they are “in the system,” who knows what negative details might turn up?

Before Bartholow had spent even two years indoors, cancer claimed him. His son came to say goodbye. While the Right to Rest law failed, California had just passed its Right to Die law, and in October of 2016 he took enough pain medication to avoid waking up again.

Reactions?

Source: “Sacramento’s $100,000 homeless man,” NewsReview.com, 02/16/17
Photo credit: Bill Benzon (STC4blues) via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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“Face of Homelessness” Journalism

leopard-blanket-homeless-person-sleepingHere is an electrifying sentence from a long-form piece by John Flynn and Matt Kramer:

During overnight storms last month, two homeless people died on City Hall property, elevating Sacramento’s humanitarian debate to a national level.

Later, Courtney Collins, daughter of one of the deceased men, testified before the city council:

I was terrified to find out about the very legal confiscation of blankets, sleeping bags and other sources of warmth and shelter for those living on the streets by the police… I have been unraveling truths so ugly, it feels impossible to go up against such a monstrous system.

This current and ongoing crisis in the state capitol of California was seen by Flynn and Kramer as a fitting occasion to tell the story of another homeless man, an activist who once spoke to a crowd from the steps of the Capitol building. This genre of news story is known as “putting a human face on” a tragedy — in this case, homelessness. The face they chose was that of Russell Bartholow, who is also deceased, although not one of those who died during the storm.

His history, like many others, should be a wake-up call for people who don’t believe that homelessness could ever be their fate. It is no exaggeration to say that millions of Americans are one paycheck away from living on the streets.

Russell Bartholow’s biography

The writers go back to their subject’s childhood, when he was the last of 60 foster children sheltered by Gertrude Bartholow, who legally adopted him. His niece Jessica remembers him as “beyond normally brilliant” in math and science.

In high school, the Native American youth was kicked in the head in a racially motivated incident. As House the Homeless readers well know, an astonishingly high proportion of people experiencing homelessness suffer from traumatic brain injury.

Bartholow spent some years as a single man, then married and had a son, then returned to his childhood home to care for his adopted mother and her husband. “But in 2000,” the writers say, “he was arrested for a drug-related offense.” The particular crime is not specified, but in general, this fact is another proof of the counterproductive nature of the War on Some Drugs and All Adults.

It was only serious enough to put him in jail for a month — during which his parents died and relatives sold the home. Once released, living with his wife and son was apparently no longer an option, and Bartholow began his 15-year residence beneath a bridge.

Flynn and Kramer wrote:

Like thousands of others in Sacramento County, once he found himself on the streets, he entered an alternate reality where the government couldn’t hear him; where those supposed to help instead focused on erasing his existence; and where the only permanent home the county offered him was in jail. It’s a system that feeds on absurdity, in which homelessness can cost more than a Midtown loft and survival is a crime.

Soliciting, panhandling and sleeping are some of the activities forbidden to unhoused citizens of Sacramento. Bartholow was cited 190 times, sometimes twice in one day, for these offenses, with the police often acting like inundating him with legal problems was all a big game. Technically, he owed more than $100,000 in fines.

The taxpayers paid to host him for more than 100 days in jail. His biography continues:

Though a full 132 of Russell’s cases were either dismissed or had their fines waived, there were other costs. Being in jail caused Russell to miss appointments to obtain government assistance, as part of eight attempts over 13 years to get money for which he qualified due to the lingering effects of the brain injury, which he believed contributed to paranoia and drug addiction. To pay for living expenses and fines, Russell turned to panhandling or selling flowers — which only led to more arrests.

The speech Bartholow gave in February of 2015 promoted the adoption of a Right to Rest Act, The No Sit/No Lie Ordinance and the Americans with Disabilities Act. But the effort failed, and many activities associated with homelessness remained criminalized, partly because politicians have a habit of ignoring the most basic truths about what is going on out there.

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Source: “Sacramento’s $100,000 homeless man,” NewsReview.com, 02/16/17
Photo credit: Mick Baker via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND

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The War Against Ourselves

austin-police-departmentNot long ago, Thomas Johnson of MimesisLaw.com published a piece called “How Does it Feel Winning the War Against the Homeless?” He sees an ongoing assault against the poor, waged by cops who increasingly act as private security forces for the wealthy elite class.

This is especially offensive because a myth, vigorously promoted in certain parts of the culture, portrays the police as victims. To them Johnson says:

When you spend your time kicking the homeless around and arresting people for trying to serve them some food, you’ve gone far off your mission of fighting crime. You’re no hero.

As House the Homeless has also done, Johnson mentions cities where folks have been arrested and/or fined for feeding people experiencing homelessness. He admits that members of the police force don’t make the laws — although evidence shows that, in a sense, they do.

Word on the street has it that police unions and prison guard unions wield far more lobbying power than they ought to, in areas that directly affect the creation and enforcement of laws (like mandatory minimum sentencing). In particular, they work hard to escalate the War on Some Drugs and Most Adults.

The thought experiment

The writer takes his readers on an imaginary journey reminiscent of two different Michael Douglas movies. In Falling Down, a tie-wearing professional abandons his car on the freeway and walks through Los Angeles, quickly devolving into a one-man death squad. In The Game, a man is drawn into a mysterious live-action role-playing game in which he believes he has lost everything, with equally homicidal results.

Those are fictitious characters, but Johnson asserts that any mayor, city councilperson, banker, real estate developer, or law enforcement officer (stripped of uniform and equipment) would be similarly unhinged. The writer posits:

You are on the street, with only the possessions on your back. You have nothing, you are nobody. Maybe it’s your own fault. Maybe you’re innocent. Either way, you are sleeping outdoors tonight.

It is all too easy to imagine. A newly homeless person soon learns that sleeping is easier said than done. At the same time, there is little else to do. Few commercial establishments are open at night, and those that are do not want scruffy penniless bums hanging around.

After four or five days, your odor is decidedly pungent. Nobody cares about your sad story, especially not the police, of whom who you quickly learn to steer clear.

Taking the final step into degradation, you stake out a panhandling spot. The ruffian who claims that patch of sidewalk pushes you into an alley and hurts you badly. Soon, you’re digging through dumpsters for food that may or may not give you a case of salmonella poisoning, and you still haven’t hit bottom yet.

It is easy to agree with Johnson that an upper-class American, if dropped into the bad part of town with empty pockets and no resources, would soon go feral. He gives a description and a warning:

Welcome to your new mental state: A hazy mix of terror, stress and sleeplessness that will guide you to desperate acts and many poor decisions.

Smugly thinking it could never happen to you is wrong. Fortunes change.

Realize that it could be you out there and declaring war on those less fortunate will not make them go away…

Inspired by such thought experiments, many complacent Americans are able to experience a shift in consciousness. Attitudes adjust and activism amplifies. They come to believe that “Conditions need to change, because if not, the bad thing could happen to me some day.”

It is a start. But we should demand from ourselves something better than that — something a bit more akin to, “Conditions need to change because, in millions of lives, the bad thing has already happened.”

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Source: “How Does it Feel Winning the War Against the Homeless?,” MimesisLaw.com, 01/11/17
Image by Richard R. Troxell

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Possessions Inspire Strong Emotions

carts-stacked-in-supermarketIn May of 2015, there were two remarkably similar incidents, one in Fort Collins, Colorado, at the nonprofit Sister Mary Alice Murphy Center for Hope. On the premises was a storage pod filled with the belongings of 58 people experiencing homelessness. Also operating from the Center was an organization called Serve 6.8, whose director one day gave the staff the afternoon off, and had the contents of the storage pod taken to the landfill.

As it turned out, some of the belongings had apparently been permanently abandoned by their owners. But 22 people had signed storage agreements that should have still been in force, and their losses included medical documents, family photos, and other irreplaceable items. The local newspaper was unable to shed much light on what happened and why. “Internal miscommunication” was the cited cause.

Journalist Sarah Jane Kyle reported that “Serve 6.8 and Murphy Center staff are drafting a written procedure for handling homeless persons’ property.” It was a classic case of closing the barn door after the horse had already bolted. Apparently, no one said why such a procedure did not already exist or why, if it did, it was not followed.

Meanwhile, in another state

A week later in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, four men who had been staying at the Water Street Mission were very upset because their belongings, along with the property of “dozens of other people,” were allegedly thrown into a dumpster. They announced their intention of going through the dumpster to get their stuff back, but were threatened with arrest. Among the items were a winter coat given to one of the men by his mother, boots needed for a construction job, prescription antibiotics, and a winter jacket.

But the story has another side. Colleen Elmer, the Mission’s vice president of programs, told a reporter that the four men had been asked to leave the Mission because of (unspecified) misbehavior, and furthermore their bags had not been placed in a dumpster but were still on the premises. The men were given the opportunity to return the following day to recover their belongings, which two of the four actually did.

The actual events may never have been truly sorted out, but the news story stimulated a batch of lively online comments. A particularly interesting one, signed Dan Pate, said:

I lived and worked there for almost a year and they do (or did in the past) just toss belongings of residence of the shelter with or with out warning not caring who it belong to or what is in the bags. I’ve been ordered to throw away peoples belonging into the dumpster and many of those times i wasnt allowed to mention it to any 1 and to call for a intern if people went into the dumpsters and the police have come to deal with them diving into them its messed up…

… And another state

Hawaii’s media once carried a photograph of a man attacking, with a sledgehammer, the possessions of people experiencing homelessness. Journalist Scott Keyes identified this rash individual as five-term State Representative Tom Brower and added:

Noting that he’s “disgusted” with homeless people, Brower told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser about his own personal brand of “justice”: “If I see shopping carts that I can’t identify, I will destroy them so they can’t be pushed on the streets.”

The paragraph contains a red flag or two. Those shopping carts are not actually the property of homeless people, but of the grocery stores from which they were borrowed. Such carts generally are clearly branded, and the claim that none could be identified is ludicrous.

To recap: An elected official did not arrange for the return of these items to their rightful owners, the supermarket chains. Instead, he destroyed (by his own count) approximately 30 carts. Whether or not the wreckage was left lying around on the streets was not reported.

Reactions?

Source: “Fort Collins nonprofit dumps homeless people’s property,” Coloradoan.com, 05/06/15
Source: “Homeless men said Water Street tossed their belongings; Mission denies claim,” LancasterOnline.com, 05/15/15
Source: “State Rep. Uses Sledgehammer To Destroy Homeless People’s Possessions,” ThinkProgress.org, 11/19/13
Photo credit: Polycart via Visualhunt/CC BY

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