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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.

Reactions?

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.”

Reactions?

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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Fourth Amendment Still in Effect

homeless-camp-near-highwayDifficult as it often is to believe, the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has not yet been annulled and is still in effect. It goes like this:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…

Some professionals make entires careers out of debating such questions as whether this only applies to people who have houses. In the street (or as we now say, on the ground, as if America were a vast battlefield), people experiencing homelessness may technically be protected by the law, but have few de facto rights. The term “property” itself is more often used with reference to real estate, and who does or does not have a right to be present within borders of that territory.

Much less often does anyone contemplate the meaning of “property” when it applies to the personal belongings of people who only have what they can carry. Yet authorities relish the chance to confiscate and destroy these possessions. 

Some cities have a policy that seized possessions must be stored for a certain amount of time, but it rarely happens. Often, the stolen items are very difficult or impossible to replace.

Enterprising reporters find the individual tales of victimization, and each one describes things that just shouldn’t be happening in America. For Mother Jones, Laura Smith collected such stories from around the country.

Regrettable examples

A Los Angeles woman whose tent and blanket were seized contracted pneumonia, was hospitalized, and sued the city. In Denver, police were told not to take bedding and camping gear during the cold months, but when April 1 rolled around, it was open season again. Seattle has been the scene of much contention because when “sweeps” are planned people are not given proper notice and their personal property is not respected.

In San Francisco, the storage rules are ignored and the California Department of Transportation has been sued for stealing tents, bedding, stoves, and other items. It is even tough to survive in Honolulu. Smith writes:

In a survey of homeless residents by the Department of Urban Planning at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, nearly 60 percent reported losing personal identification, 40 percent lost tents, and 21 percent lost medicine in sweeps.

Any housed citizen who has ever lost a wallet or purse, or experienced a burglary or fire, knows what a hassle it is to replace documents. For a person experiencing homelessness, without a phone, address, or checking account, the loss of ID is catastrophic.

Smith spoke with Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, and learned that seizure and destruction of personal property happens all over the country. Smith writes:

Belongings are often seized under anti-camping laws or laws that prohibit sleeping in public — part of a larger trend of what Foscarinis calls “the criminalization of homelessness.” Earlier this year, her organization released a study tracking the phenomenon in 187 cities.

In Reno, Nevada, the local shelters were full, and Robert Wynters lived under a bridge. He carefully stashed his few extra clothes, hygiene supplies, personal papers, and bicycle to go out and look for work, and returned to find everything gone. This happened not once, but three times in a six-month period.

In each case, inquiries at the sheriff’s office the very next day were futile, because each time he was told that his property had been destroyed. In April of 2015, he filed a civil rights lawsuit against the sheriff’s department.

In July, the Washoe County Board of Commissioners approved a $14,000 settlement for Wynters and his attorney, and resolved to adopt some better procedures for the removal and storage of personal property from campsites. Every now and then, somebody wins.

With the help of organizations or lawyers willing to do pro bono work, once in a while a plaintiff is heard and compensated. Of course in these cases, society loses, because the monetary awards are paid for by the taxpayers, who would probably much prefer that good practices had been in effect sooner.

Reactions?

Source: “Denver Isn’t the Only City Seizing Homeless People’s Gear,” MotherJones.com, 12/16/16
Source: “Reno accused of illegally seizing property of homeless,” NevadaAppeal.com, 04/17/15
Source: “Board of County Commissioners Washoe County, Nevada,” WashoeCounty.us, 07/28/15
Photo credit: Joe Green (Divine in the Daily) via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND

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When Homelessness Is Criminalized

homeless-man-on-a-benchFor Alternet.org, Ebony Slaughter-Johnson wrote:

In communities all over the country, police are strongly incentivized — by federal grant conditions and local budgetary constraints alike — to make arrests and issue fines as frequently as possible.

After such a truth-bomb of a first sentence, all the rest is just details — the kinds of details that pile up relentlessly, day after day, in some parts of the country, until an outlaw life looks better than nothing. But, too often, young people are implicated in crimes they never put an ounce of intention or awareness into. A person can wind up in prison for loaning their car to a friend.

The poor are systematically hit with fines and penalties that make their survival even more precarious. In 2013, in Ferguson, Missouri, the courts “released more arrest warrants than there were people.”

The notorious, enormously protested 2015 death of Sandra Bland in Prairie View, Texas, was found to be part of a similar scheme. States with no personal income tax, of which Texas is one, are particularly vulnerable to piracy in uniform.

It is all part of a system that, as Slaughter-Johnson says, “creates poverty with one hand while violently punishing it with the other.” She relates the appalling story of Alton Sterling, a homeless man killed by police in Baton Rouge, LA. People experiencing homelessness are hit hardest of all, especially in neighborhoods that are mostly African-American. The much-touted solution of mass incarceration has solved nothing.

Communities in crisis

Remember when Sarasota, Florida, arrested Darren Kersey for charging his cell phone in a public picnic shelter in a city park? This led to a night in jail, a charge of Utilities Theft, and a $500 bail bond. It costs about 25¢ per year to charge a cell phone, so that seems a bit extreme. The likelihood that a person experiencing homelessness could post bail, or pay any fine, was vanishingly small.

In 2015, there was a similar cell-phone case in Portland, Oregon, generally perceived as a liberal and left-leaning town. A man and a woman (who identified herself as “Jackie”), both experiencing homelessness, were accused of third-degree theft for charging their phones from “an outlet on a sidewalk planter box in Old Town.”

This is the type of outlet that powers the extravagant holiday light displays in cities across America, spending a chunk of taxpayers’ money for decorations for people to enjoy. Why a city would begrudge homeless people the fraction of a cent’s worth of electricity needed to charge a phone is a mystery indeed.

Reporter Emily Green mentioned the foolishness of wasting public resources on such a trifling “offense” especially when, as in this case, the time and energy of four uniformed officers are utilized. She also pointed out the serious consequences that could accrue:

Jackie has never been convicted of a crime. If this charge led to a conviction, it would mean the difference between checking “no” or “yes” to questions about criminal history on a job or housing application.

Jackie’s case was destined for Community Court, but when TechDirt.com followed up the story, reporting that the accused had lost the citation and consequently missed her court date. She turned herself in and was jailed.

The following month, Alternet.org reported that Jackie had refused a plea bargain because of the damage it could do to her future chances of housing and employment, and said that “eventually, the theft charge was dropped.”

Back in Florida

Let’s get back to the fate of Florida’s accused electricity thief, Darren Kersey. A sane judge threw the case out. The ACLU’s Michael Barfield told the press:

We have been monitoring the efforts to root the homeless out of the parks, and have several actions planned against the city. So much happens on a daily basis, it’s hard to keep up with it. Every day there’s something new.

Barfield is a former jailhouse lawyer who, because of his criminal record, is not permitted to become an attorney. The law allows him to practice as a paralegal, which he does enthusiastically, defending so many unpopular causes that surely a movie will be made about his life some day. In the whole country, he is one of the more flamboyant public figures involved with homeless issues. As a not-quite lawyer, he is in a position similar to that of many not-quite-reporters.

The great news-gatherers and news-dispensers of the past and present deserve infinite respect. Still, there has probably never been a time when citizen journalism flourished more ornately or more effectively. The general public may never hear of the contributions made to justice by their fellow Americans whose energy is directed according to Motivation 3.0, the formulation articulated by Daniel Pink as a combination of autonomy, purpose, and mastery.

Few people will ever know how much any story was enriched by amateur sleuthing and bureaucrat-bothering, contributed by ordinary folks who aspire to be the difference they want to see in the world.

Reactions?

Source: “The Criminalization of Black Homelessness,” AlterNet.org, 12/06/16
Source: “Homeless man jailed after charging cell phone,” OrlandoSentinal.com, 11/13/12
Source: “Homeless phone-charging “thief” wanted security,” StreetRoots.org, 03/06/15
Source: “Portland Police Bravely Defend Public From Homeless Woman Looking To Charge Her Cell Phone,” TechDirt.com, 03/19/15
Source: “Jailed for Charging a Cell Phone? 7 Cruelest Instances of Class Warfare in America,”
AlterNet.org, 04/08/15
Photo credit: Pedro Ribeiro Simoes (pedrosimoes7) via Visualhunt/ CC BY

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A Few Things About Rent

min-wage-state-mapGeorge Orwell, author of 1984 and Animal Farm, published another book 80 years ago called The Road to Wigan Pier, about the terrible conditions in England just after the Great Depression. What does it remind you of?

In the industrial areas the mere difficulty of getting hold of a house is one of the worst aggravations of poverty. It means that people will put up with anything — any hole and corner slum, any misery of bugs and rotting floors and cracking walls, any extortion of skinflint landlords and blackmailing agents — simply to get a roof over their heads.

Most of the people I talked to had given up the idea of ever getting a decent habitation again. They were all out of work, and a job and a house seemed to them about equally remote and impossible. Some hardly seemed to care; others realized quite clearly in what misery they were living.

It reminds us of the situation in parts of America today, where more and more economically stressed people are competing for fewer and fewer affordable rentals. Remember our posts about Airbnb as it manifests in Los Angeles and San Francisco?

More happened. The short-term rental broker sued the city of San Francisco and here’s the crazy part: Airbnb had participated in writing the law it sued about, one that “capped short-term rentals at 90 days in addition to requiring renters to register.” Doesn’t sound so unreasonable, does it?

Airbnb soon reversed its stance, and claimed that the law violates not only the First Amendment free speech right, it also violates the federal Communications Decency Act. Gizmodo’s Angela Chen explains exactly how, along with other complicated circumstances, and also why the mayors of 10 big cities met to figure out what to do about Airbnb.

Airbnb is also accused in other contexts as being exclusively white-privileged. Proponents call it homesharing, to make it sound all warm and fuzzy, because who would want to come out against homesharing?

But these domiciles are not being freely shared with newly-evicted families, no, they are being rented at unbelievably elevated prices to people who already have at least one home. Property owners can make so much more money renting to a never-ending series of vacationers than to, for instance, a nice family looking for stable situation to raise a couple of kids in.

Not inspiring of optimism

Meanwhile, who wouldn’t want to know about a rental ripoff even more disgusting than Airbnb? Rentberry, described as “a cross between Craigslist and eBay, wants to expand from 10 to 1,000 U.S. cities. Basically, from the highest bidders’ pool, landlords can choose the prospective tenant who makes the best impression.

Supposedly, it will even lower rents in some parts of the country. This prediction is partly based on an outlandish-sounding claim that there is an oversupply of apartments in America:

[…] if it takes off and becomes the new standard for renting apartments… landlords will have the control.

[…] the ease of having background checks already complete and the possibility of higher rents than expected could prove enticing.

And Rentberry isn’t the only one to see the potential in this business model. Competitors like Biddwell are also coming up, ensuring that this idea won’t live or die with just one startup.

The following notes were taken by your correspondent who went undercover to a seminar for Colorado landlords, presented by a nationally acclaimed consultant. This was around 20 years ago — in the good old days:

He gave them advice on what he called a powerful control tool. “Do not give yearly leases. By keeping the tenants on a month-to month lease, you can get rid of them in ten days instead of thirty.”

Discussing three-day eviction, he exclaimed, “This is fabulous stuff, fabulous. For crying out loud, use it!”

renters-income-chart

Simple Charts Are the Best Charts

… Such as this one from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Much of their raw data, incidentally, comes from the decennial census, and here are some facts about that:

The census is one of the most impressive attempts any country makes to count its own people, a crucial building block for the world’s largest economy…

The census affects every corner of America, determining where hundreds of billions of federal dollars flow annually, where businesses open new stores and which states gain — or lose — seats in the House of Representatives in 2020 reapportionment.

The bad news, as delivered by Danny Vinik, is that the nation’s ability to carry out its next national census appears to be threatened. How this can particularly affect the expenditure of $500 billion dollars in such areas as housing, based on the American Community Survey, is explained in chilling detail by ScienceMag.org.

More posts concerning rent and other closely related topics:

  1. Living on the Shifting Sands of Affordability
  2. Minimum Wage and the Rental Market
  3. Economic Homelessness, Rent, and Deadened Memories
  4. The Fight for $15!
  5. Does Tyrone Poole Have the Rental Housing Answer?
  6. Ending and Preventing Economic Homelessness
  7. The Universal Living Wage
  8. Economic Homelessness in New York: One Man’s Story

Reactions?

Source: “The Road to Wigan Pier,” George Orwell
Source: “Airbnb Sues San Francisco Over Law It Helped Draft,” Gizmodo.com, 06/28/16
Source: “Bidding Website Rentberry May Be the Startup of Your Nightmares,” Gizmodo.com, 04/02/17
Source: “Trump’s Threat to the 2020 Census,” Politico.com, 04/09/17
Source: “Scientists fear pending attack on federal statistics collection,” ScienceMag.org, 01/03/17
Image sources: Fair use (top), CBPP

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Odd Jobs

recycling-cans-in-bagsRecently, House the Homeless looked at the situation in Washington, D.C., where shady contractors pit people experiencing homelessness against evictees (i.e., the newly homeless), and it’s ugly.

In any city, there are bound to be a few jobs specially allotted to, or created by, those who are out of options. The viability of a career in recycling depends on local ordinances; access to a buyer; having a way to store and transport the merchandise; and other factors.

California’s recycling rules have been in effect for almost 30 years, and for many street people, their only income derives from bottles and cans. In San Francisco, a person might make between $15 and $35 per day, depending on good weather, good health, and good luck in not having their haul stolen by competitors. There used to be 30 redemption sites and now are only two, very close to each other geographically, so people in any other part of the city have a hard time.

Waste management expert Martin Medina estimates that about 1% of the earth’s urban dwellers (about 15 million people altogether) live by harvesting society’s castaway materials. In some places their activities are, of course, criminalized.

For CommonDreams.org, Jack Chang wrote a respectful tribute to the trash pickers of the world:

Every day, they rescue hundreds of thousands of tons of material from streets and trash dumps that get reprocessed into all kinds of products. That not only cuts back on the resources used by industries but also lightens the load on dumps that are quickly reaching capacity.

“Urban Tactics; Nabbing the Elusive Nickel” by Saki Knafo is a still very relevant description of the world of “canners” in New York City a decade ago.

Hired feet

In 2012, for The Huffinton Post, Arthur Delaney described the activities of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council of Carpenters which hired the homeless in Washington, D.C., for $8.50 an hour, to carry picket signs and raise their voices in chants. Critics decried a “cynical use of homeless people to do this dirty work.” The union seemed out of patience with anyone who questioned this hiring practice. Its members were busy at their jobs, and besides, the method had already been deployed in seven other cities.

From one of them, only the previous year, Joel Gehrke had reported this story:

In Grand Rapids, Mich., the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters has started protesting companies that hire a local non-union carpentry firm, Ritsema Associates. Where does the union get its picketers? It hires them from a homeless shelter that is supported by Ritsema Associates.

So it gets very complicated and, as temp jobs go, picketing is in a whole different class from trash recovery. People experiencing homelessness also have been employed to count other people experiencing homelessness.

Some entrepreneurial individuals carve out highly idiosyncratic paths. Remember when Ted Williams, the “man with the golden voice,” was rediscovered and became for a short while an outsider celebrity? His former tent-mate offered Williams’s leftover cardboard signs for sale on eBay.

Reactions?

Source: “How Homeless Recyclers Make a Living Redeeming Recyclables,” PBS.org, 05/13/16
Source: “Scorned Trash Pickers Become Global Environmental Force,” CommonDreams.org, 03/25/08
Source: “Urban Tactics; Nabbing the Elusive Nickel,” NYTimes.com, 07/09/06
Source: “Paid To Protest, Some Homeless Almost Make A Living,” HuffingtonPost.com, 11/24/12
Source: “Union hires homeless picketers — and it gets better,” SFExaminer.com, 02/17/11
Source: “Homeless Count or Are Counted,” LATimes.com, 01/27/05
Image: Otterman56 (Ed)

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Not Every Job Is an Opportunity

out-on-the-street-evictionIn Washington, D.C., a person experiencing homelessness can climb into a van and drink some cheap alcohol he thinks is free, but which later turns out to be deducted from his pay. His pay for what? For helping as many as two dozen other men evict a family. This overstaffing is for the sake of speed.

Elizabeth Flock explains:

[…] because in D.C. evictions are overseen by the U.S. Marshals Service, which has other jobs to do — that crew must be large enough to quickly carry out the eviction.

Imagine being a kid in the only home you know, the house your parents rent. All of a sudden, 25 strange men show up, plus a number of Marshals (possibly with guns drawn). The invaders are all over the place, taking your stuff out to dump on the sidewalk, and pushing you out along with it.

The situation is lousy for the workers, too. They get into that van without knowing how long their work day will be, but with a fair certainty that nobody will be serving any food or water. It’s a “bring your own gloves” gig. Flock says the trucks are not equipped with dollies or other normal moving amenities, and if a worker gets hurt, that’s just tough luck.

Bruised or intact, there is no guarantee that the men will be returned to the starting point. They may be left stranded miles away from their home base. The promised pay might be as little as $7 for the entire day, and there’s a good chance the company will stiff them. In return for no background check or request for credentials, that’s the kind of job you get.

However, throwing people out does offer plenty of opportunity to steal from distressed ex-tenants, along with the chance to mistreat a vulnerable population, and most people quite frankly don’t need that kind of temptation laid in their path.

How it goes in our nation’s capitol

The concept of fair labor practices isn’t even a blip on these companies’ radar. The bosses allegedly engage in price-fixing. The going rate for this type of day labor used to be almost three times as much. Now the supply of destitute workers is much greater than the demand for their rudimentary services, and the workers are badly in need of cash, perhaps to feed habits.

A large law firm supported a class-action suit, but the eviction companies don’t take it seriously and the court does nothing to compel them. The Office of Labor Law and Enforcement says it has never received a complaint. And the Marshals? It’s not their job to get involved in somebody else’s wage dispute.

The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research is a think tank described as both conservative and non-partisan, and it too has a point of view. Journalist Kevin Corinth captured this expressive quotation from a worker:

We have seen babies crying, grandmas… You do some kind of drugs, so then you don’t care, so you leave them on the curb over there crying, and go on to next one.

Instead of choosing someone professional who says, “I can’t do it,” they choose people who don’t have any feelings anymore, and have given up on life. Because they will get on this truck for $7.

The writer empathizes with landlords, who can’t keep housing on the market if nobody pays them. He also empathizes with the eviction crews, who after all are dealing with some pretty unpleasant feelings. They are homeless people, making other dispossessed and displaced people homeless. In such a role, who could help calling to mind their own parents, partners, or children?

But, Corinth writes:

The true problem is that eviction companies are dehumanizing the homeless men they hire by exploiting their addictions. Rather than being encouraged to serve with professionalism and empathy, they are encouraged to numb their humanity with alcohol.

He even empathizes with the evictees, who are not even given so much as a flyer with shelter addresses or a hotline number. The writer suggests hiring fewer workers for better pay, but, realistically, that idea has a snowball’s chance in hell.

He goes on to say:

Another solution could be to prevent evictions from happening in the first place. Recent research has shown that offering families who are at risk of homelessness modest one-time payment leads to sharp reductions in entries into homeless shelters (and presumably reduces evictions as well).

Whatever the solution, evictions are inevitable. Dehumanizing people in the process is not.

Reactions?

Source: “Eviction Companies Pay the Homeless Illegally Low Wages to Put People on the Street,” WashingtonCityPaper.com, 02/23/17
Source: “Exploiting homeless people is not okay,” Aei.org, 02/28/17
Photo credit: 70023venus2009 via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND

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Homeless by the Numbers

capitol-building-lit-at-nightThe 2016 national homeless count was about 550,000, and indicated that one out of five people experiencing homelessness resides in either New York or Los Angeles. California contains 28% of all the homeless people in America.

Five states account for half the homeless, and they are California, New York, Florida, Texas, and Washington. The statistics get confusing, because some cities are lumped in along with their entire counties, like Seattle/King County and Los Angeles City/County.

In quoting the 2016 count of King County’s homeless people (10,677), Ashley Archibald says the number “deceives in its apparent precision.” There is no intentional deception, and the challenge is the same pretty much everywhere.

More importantly, even counts of housed people produce fuzzy numbers. Archibald breaks it down for Real Change News:

Humans are pesky creatures, constantly moving, losing census forms or simply not bothering to fill them out at all. Statisticians rely on projections rather than hard counts to calculate the number and location of people. In the end it’s an extremely well-informed, highly mathematical guess.

Because the count is so important to federal funding, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority has stepped up its efforts to locate people so they can be added to the tally. Nationwide, about 20 counties conduct a separate youth count, which applies to people under 25 years of age.

The great Northwest

Here is one description of Seattle/King County’s new system:

The Count Us In method will utilize different data collection methods for the full range of homelessness count activities. The count will include a street count of people living unsheltered, those living in sheltered or transitional housing, a qualitative survey of people experiencing homelessness and specialized approaches to count people living in vehicles…

The numbers to be released will be the findings on homeless youth, vehicle residents, chronic homelessness and other specialized populations.

For Seattle Weekly, Joe Bernstein describes the current year’s activities from a perspective that housed people don’t hear very often:

Early Friday morning, volunteers and paid staff across King County will try to count the street homeless like me.

He describes the complicated yet conscientious history of doing these counts in Seattle and environs, leading up to why and how the new approach of working with the nonprofit Applied Survey Research was adopted for this year:

ASR brags that HUD considers its method a “best practice,” and it has two features Seattle hasn’t seen before: covering whole counties […] and doing so with teams of two volunteers and a currently or recently homeless “guide,” paid for his or her time.

Bernstein goes on to explain why certain results will occur, like difficulty in comparing new information with past data, because, unlike before, the new method divides up reporting areas by census tract. An overall numerical increase is also likely, and not only because a larger area is being covered. The homeless “guides” presumably have insider knowledge about where people tuck themselves away out of sight.

As a person experiencing homelessness himself, Bernstein offers the following insights:

Street counts normally happen at night because many homeless people sleep then, and fewer housed people are around to confuse things. Still, counters are at huge disadvantages. Volunteers across the country often don’t try to count people in cars or tents accurately, don’t enter squats or shacks, don’t wake anyone up, may not even ask those awake “Are you homeless?”, and can hardly guess how many people are couch-surfing.

Perhaps the best way to think about the counts is as a floor, a minimum. Shelter counts are pretty reliable, and street counts reliably underestimate. (This is why the feds want January counts — they want the highest sheltered percentage they can get.)

This year’s number will probably be bigger, maybe much bigger, but there’s a silver lining: It’ll probably be less of an underestimate of the real, even scarier, number.

Hot Springs, Arkansas, receives less attention than a lot of other places. The United Way-recruited volunteers are not allowed to work at night. The only two categories are sheltered and unsheltered. Occupying a vehicle, or squatting in a house with no running water, counts as unsheltered.

In the past year, the unsheltered total has more than doubled, and the overall total rose by 40%. In Hot Springs, the very large majority of people experiencing homelessness are single males.

Sue Legal of Ouachita Children’s Center told a reporter that this year’s higher count doesn’t necessarily mean an increase in the actual number of homeless people, but does reflect the benefits of pleasant weather and a bigger volunteer team. Even so, she believes that many people living in concealed rural camps were not counted.

Shoutout to Washington/District of Columbia, which is in fifth place. The capitol of the United States of America, the most powerful and morally superior nation on earth, has a homeless population of at least 8,350, smaller than only four other American cities.

Reactions?

Source: “The U.S. Cities With The Largest Homeless Populations [Infographic],” Forbes.com, 11/25/16
Source: “Counting in the dark,” RealChangeNews.ort, 01/25/17
Source: “Counting America’s hidden homeless,” AlJazeera.com, 01/31/17
Source: “New homeless counting system starting this year,” MapleValleyReporter.com, 02/03/17
Source: “Homeless count shows increase of unsheltered,” Hotsr.com, 02/10/17
Photo credit: Tony Brooks (yeahbouyee) via Visualhunt/CC BY

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