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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.

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

0

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

0

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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