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Another Bad Example: San Diego

homeless-san-diegoAn essay that Dan Arel wrote for Counterpunch about the current goings-on in San Diego is vital because it concerns two topics that have been extensively covered by House the Homeless: the Housing First concept and “sweeps.”

Arel speaks of the violent El Nino weather patterns that afflicted Southern California early last month, just when “community frustration” about the large number of people experiencing homelessness was rising. The only answer the mayor’s office could come up with was to order a “cleanup,” as if poverty-stricken, unhoused people are dirt that needs to be swept away.

Many police officers took part in the tearing down of shelters and the relegation of people’s possessions to garbage trucks. Arel writes:

To make matters worse, the officers timed their action when many of the homeless in the area had gone inside to access restrooms at the Neil Good Day Center. When the homeless citizens went inside, police deemed their property abandoned and collected it all.

Aside from everything else, the reporter was told by activist Michael McConnell that the response rate of the police department to actual crimes is far from admirable, and to have police personnel throwing away blankets and tents is a terrible waste of public funds. Caltrans also keeps its workers busy with “a crew out almost every day cleaning out downtown area camps.” Supposedly, the homeless are given three-days notice to move elsewhere, which is a cruel joke when there is no other place to go.

As always, the city cites sanitation and hygiene concerns. As always, decent people wonder why there can’t be public restrooms and even places for washing up and doing laundry. The society we live in has ambitions to build colonies on other planets, yet can’t figure out how to provide sanitation and hygiene in a modern, advance city here on Earth.

In addition to “sweep” and “cleanup,” civic authorities also use the term “purge” which has even worse connotations. A purge is the abrupt or violent removal of people from an organization or place. The word has many synonyms, including expulsion, ejection, exclusion, eviction, and eradication. Purges were and are engaged in by conscienceless tyrants in banana republics, Iron Curtain countries, and places ruled by medieval-minded warlords.

Somewhere around 9,000 homeless people live in San Diego, and a lot of them lost vital medications, personal papers and documents, irreplaceable belongings, sleeping bags, spare clothes, and more in this effort to clean up the city. The local activists, when they show up at protests and meetings, wear trash bags to convey the message, “Stop treating human beings like garbage.”

The reporter says:

Roughly one-third of the unsheltered homeless have a physical disability, and one-fifth suffer from severe mental illness. These men and women need more help than is available and what they receive instead is harassment by law enforcement and the city government… Throwing away possessions and destroying homeless camps does not solve the crisis facing the city… With mentally ill and elderly people lining our streets, San Diego must do better.

Allegedly, “tens of millions of dollars” are available to help people pay rent under the Section 8 program, but as in so many other places, landlords refuse to take Section 8 tenants. Obviously some other solution is needed, and needed now.

One of the most disturbing paragraphs in this deeply disturbing story concerns the reporter’s assessment of the Housing First paradigm as a failure — at least in San Diego:

The solution, which looks fantastic on paper, gives these men, women, and families a stable living situation and allows them to rebuild their lives and even reenter the workforce. However, this plan has never been successful and instead of rethinking the strategy, it seems that city officials have just thrown their arms up in frustration… Using landlords as a scapegoat for inaction accomplishes nothing…

Who should be the scapegoats? The municipal administrators who allegedly are smart enough to run things, but who can’t figure this stuff out — not just in San Diego, but everywhere in America.

It’s funny how, whenever a city wants to build a dog park or a racetrack or a sports arena, funding is available and obstacles magically melt away. But when it comes to creating places for people to live under roofs with electricity and running water, it’s like this enormous puzzle that none of these college-educated, highly-paid bureaucrats can wrap their heads around.

Housing? For humans? The clever, suit-wearing winners are at a complete loss. Imagining how to get people in out of the weather is an insurmountable challenge.

Reactions?

Source: “‘A Cold and Callous Operation:’ San Diego’s Mass Evictions of the Homeless,” Counterpunch.org, 04/18/16
Photo credit: Rick McCharles via Visual hunt/CC BY

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A Fine Idea

serving-the-homelessYes, the title of this post is a sarcastic joke, because the increasing propensity of cities to criminalize homelessness is anything but fine. If it were not so deadly serious, the insanity of trying to wipe out poverty by punishing it with monetary penalties would be hilarious.

Just last month, in the Italian the town of Bordighera, the mayor demonstrated his understanding of how foolish it is to fine the homeless. Instead, he announced that anyone caught giving money to a beggar would be fined.

House the Homeless mentioned the fellow in the Canadian city of Montreal who owes the equivalent of $18,000 in homeless fees. The London borough of Hackney announced its intention to fine the homeless between (the British equivalent of) $142 and $1,420 for such offenses as sleeping outside and panhandling. More than 65,000 signed a petition objecting to the idea, and the Hackney Council backed off.

There are plenty of similarly grotesque examples in America, where the following incidents have happened in recent history.

In San Antonio, Texas, chef Joan Cheever, who owns a commercially licensed food truck, was warned that she could no longer deliver food to the homeless in her personal truck, which apparently is necessary because it is not practical to park the larger food truck in some locations. The bureaucracy decided that she could only hand out industrially packaged food from the smaller truck, rather than the nourishing gourmet meals that she cooked.

After receiving the first ticket that fined her $2,000, she continued to serve food in the accustomed way and told reporter Stefanie Tuder:

I’m not going to settle and I’m not going to pay the fine and I’m not going to stop. They can come out every Tuesday and write me up a ticket and we’ll just start collecting them.

By the way, House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell has called defiant chef Joan Cheever his hero.

In a Florida town where a 90-year-old veteran and two ministers were feeding people experiencing homelessness, a new law was passed that would fine them up to $500 and possibly send them to jail, and the veteran was arrested twice in one week.

In Kansas City, Missouri, charitable organizations can run afoul of the law by providing food or other services within 500 feet of a park or within 1,000 feet of a school.

Aside from food providers, people determined to help in other ways are penalized. In Portland, Oregon, a property owner was fined for allowing an impromptu community called “Right 2 Dream Too” to exist on his empty lot.

In Temecula, California, the only full-time homeless shelter was told it had to close within a month, and Jeff Horseman reported that Project TOUCH already been fined more than $2,000 and faced further penalties of $1,000 a day.

In Madison, Wisconsin, a couple set up lockers on their front porch so people experiencing homelessness could store their belongings. Sometimes, people even slept on the porch.

The neighbors complained, and the generous couple were threatened with daily $300 fines. Scott Keyes reported:

People being threatened or assessed with fines for helping the homeless is becoming a trend recently. Earlier this year, a Florida couple was fined $746 for feeding homeless people, while a Birmingham pastor was prevented from doing so because he didn’t have a $500 permit. Even church groups based in St. Louis and Raleigh have been blocked and threatened with arrest for handing out meals to their homeless neighbors.

In McMinnville, Oregon, a church that started by serving coffee and snacks began letting people camp outside at night, and was threatened with fines for the violation of zoning ordinances. In this case, a compromise was reached: Tents would no longer be allowed, but people could stay overnight on the property in sleeping bags.

Reactions?

Source: “This town will fine you for giving money to homeless people,” WashingtonPost.com, 03/18/16
Source: “Hackney confirms it will not be fining homeless people,” localgov,co.uk, 06/08/15
Source: “San Antonio, Texas, Chef Fights City Fine to Feed the Homeless,” Yahoo.com, 04/22/15
Source: “90-Year-Old WW2 Veteran and Two Clergymen Face 60 Days in Jail for Feeding the Homeless in Florida,” LibertyBlitzkrieg.com, 11/05/14
Source: “How helping the homeless could get you in trouble in Missouri,” fox4kc.com, 12/19/14
Source: “Portland homeless camp faces closure,” DailyTidings.com, 02/01/12
Source: “Temecula homeless shelter has 30 days to close, avoid fines,” PE.com, 05/14/11
Source: “Church Could Face Fine for Allowing Homeless Congregation to Stay on Property,” texomashomepage.com, 03/17/15
Source: “Couple Who Let Homeless People Sleep On Their Porch Threatened With Daily Fine,” ThinkProgress.org, 09/19/14
Photo credit: thelesleyshow via Visualhunt/CC BY

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The Homeless Still Kicked When Down

  1. police-dog
    For those who live on the streets, it is a common experience to be blamed, scorned, scolded, fined, or even jailed for the de facto crime of Breathing While Homeless.

Our northern neighbor Canada does not always set a good example. Toronto has been a very tough place for some time.

In 2012, things were so bad they were holding Homeless Memorials not just yearly, but every month. One of those remembered was Louis Quinn, who died owing the city as much as $30,000 because of the almost daily tickets he was issued for panhandling and encumbering a sidewalk.

Of course he wasn’t the only one. Research showed the insane but unsurprising fact that handing out such tickets used up a million dollars worth of police labor time each year. There were millions of dollars worth of unpaid fines, and the city recouped some spare change by selling the debt to collection agencies, who were then highly incentivized to cause even more grief in the lives of people experiencing homelessness.

John Bonnar wrote:

If they don’t pay up it goes against their credit rating. Then if they do manage to make it back on their feet, their negative credit rating rating could prevent them from obtaining a credit card, renting an apartment, leasing a car or even acquiring a cell phone contract.

Apparently, matters on the Canadian front have not improved. This enlightening paragraph was written earlier this month by Patrick Lejtenyi for Vice.com:

It’s no secret that Montreal cops have monthly ticket quotas to meet. The police admitted as much two years ago… Those quotas are being met in large part by handing them out to the homeless, even with the knowledge that the fines will likely never be paid.

Isabelle Raffestin, coordinator of the Droit Devant legal clinic, told the reporter about a typical case, in which a middle-aged man, ill in both body and mind, owed the government the equivalent of $18,000 USD in fines that stemmed from his homeless condition. Another source mentioned knowing several young people who had made some progress toward getting their lives on track, but who had been dragged back into penury, and even imprisoned, because of the fines levied on them for doing things that housed people have no need or reason to do, or at least tend to get away with.

The good news is that Montreal has a municipal court program where the possibility exists of convincing the public prosecutor to extend amnesty and tear up the tickets. But is that the best solution? Lejtenyi writes:

Those who have lived on the streets and gone through the legal system say the homeless in Montreal are caught in a weird echo-chamber of the city’s making. They are well-served when they want to access social services, programs, and legal aid — but they wouldn’t need them if they weren’t made such easy targets for police in the first place.

It begins to sound as if homelessness is just a gigantic job-creation program for civil servants. In America, House the Homeless has mentioned the ever-increasing number of “sweeps” that take place in cities where enormous resources are used to move people experiencing homelessness from one place to another, invariably losing stability, and possessions, along the way.

One sorry example is Denver, Colorado, where police have become increasingly aggressive and brutal. Meanwhile, over the past three years the city’s police department has spent upward of $1.3 million on its media relations department.

A statement from their boss said their duties include:

[…] handling phone calls and interview requests from the media 24/7, organizing press conferences, writing press releases, producing podcasts, internal communication, safety campaigns, projects with other city agencies, promoting department events, plus many other tasks.

Including, no doubt, plenty of spin and lots of damage control. Apparently it has not occurred to the city that better police training and more humane policies might obviate the need for costly public relations efforts. Meanwhile, even worse stories are out there. In Orlando, Florida, last year, a public defender made news:

Robert Wesley wants to put an end to low value arrests with high court fines, which he said hurts the homeless and is a burden on taxpayers because of the cost incurred during the cases that the defendants ultimately can’t pay.

Wesley told journalist Stewart Moore about a particular case where a man dying in a hospice had to be guarded by police at all times, at ridiculous cost to the taxpayers. Technically, he was under arrest for not paying homeless fines.

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless people racking up thousands in fines under Safe Streets Act,” Rabble.ca, 09/13/12
Source: “Why Did Canada Fine This Homeless Man $80,000?,” Vice.com, 03/01/16
Source: “Denver Police defend spending more than $1.3 million over three years on public relations,” TheDenverChannel.com, 02/16/16
Source: “Local public defender calls for stop to homeless arrests, fines,” WESH.com, 08/11/15
Photo credit: wantmorepuppies via Visualhunt/CC BY

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Guilty of Breathing While Homeless

go-to-jailLast week we mentioned a fellow whose dentures were stolen by the authorities in their quest to “clean up” San Francisco for a gigantic sports event. Oscar McKinney has other problems too, like a couple of dozen citations for loitering, sleeping, and just generally Breathing While Homeless.

In that legendary city, law enforcement is relentless against homeless people who are “engaged in necessary, life-sustaining activities.” According to ThinkProgress.org:

There are 23 city codes criminalizing things like standing or resting in public, sleeping in public places and cars, and panhandling… Police issued nearly 23,000 citations for violations of these codes between 2006 and 2014.

This game has many variations. For a Change.org page that has not been archived, “Slumjack Homeless” once described being ticketed for sleeping on a sidewalk:

Now I’ll have to go to court (more costly and wastefully time consuming than you can imagine, requiring going all the way to another city to do so) where they typically then impose fines (far more “expensive” in this predicament than you might realize) which can also be “paid” via “community service” […] which means working, unpaid, for perhaps 30 hours or so. Free slave labor, really, and from people that STILL can’t sleep or live anywhere.

In nearby Marin County in 2011, Legal Aid attorney Maura Prendiville took a look at the stats, which at the time reported approximately 5,000 people in the county experiencing homelessness or extremely precarious living situations. Even though there was no shelter space, people were ticketed for sleeping outdoors, and for numerous petty infractions.

Activists created a pilot program with the goal of helping people avoid, rather than accrue, criminal records. The community court would have the option of referring defendants to substance abuse programs and other mental health services. Here too, people could “work off” their fines with the judge’s permission.

CBS news quoted Rick Buquia, who described they cycle of court appearances, volunteer work, and jail that had become his life. The reporter wrote:

He has been homeless for three years and is facing a $1,000 ticket he simply cannot afford to pay.

In Looking Up at the Bottom Line, House the Homeless President Richard R. Troxell narrates the beginnings of the battle for sanity in Austin that later, after years of work, resulted in some relatively humane rules. Under a proposed ordinance, sleeping rough would be a criminal offense with a fine of up to $500. People would get tickets they couldn’t pay for, and then be locked up and emerge with criminal records.

The city had only a few hundred shelter beds and a homeless population of several thousand, so how was this supposed to work? Richard wrote:

To some, the idea was ludicrous, for if the homeless had $500.00 surely they would opt to sleep somewhere other than under a bridge. For others, the homeless were merely being asked to pay their “debt to society” for their crime of sleeping in public… These people would then be returned to the streets, still without jobs, or still without jobs paying living wages. They would still have no access to affordable housing, and the only continuity in their lives was that they were assured of being arrested again… and again.

Reactions?

Source: “‘They’re Herding Us Like Cattle’: How San Francisco’s Homeless and the City Are Paying Dearly for Superbowl 50,” Alternet.org, 01/28/16
Source: “San Francisco Clears Out Homeless Ahead Of The Super Bowl,” ThinkProgress.org, 02/03/16
Source: “Why I Choose Streets Over Shelter,” Change.org, 06/03/09
Source: “Community Court Gives Fresh Start To Marin County Homeless,” CBSlocal.com, 05/13/11
Source: “Looking Up at the Bottom Line,” Amazon.com
Photo credit: kenteegardin via Visual hunt/CC BY-SA

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The Sweep Tsunami

masked-police

Blending in with the scenery, masked Austin police officers stroll between the ARC homeless shelter and Salvation Army.

Readers will remember the Open Letter to the City of Austin, written by the President and CEO of House the Homeless, Richard R. Troxell. (Scroll down the page past more recent events such as Amplify Austin, the Traumatic Brain Injury Survey Report, Kids 4 Kids Sake, the Thermal Underwear Party, the Homeless Sunrise Memorial Service, the Veterans’ Day Parade, and Bridge the Economic Gap Day. Look for the Department of Justice seal, and you’re there.)

The letter was widely circulated and published, not only to the officials and bureaucrats of Austin, Texas, but to like-minded organizations and to the press. This was in August of last year, more than six months ago, and the problems outlined in the text have only become worse since then.

All over America, even people with jobs can’t afford to pay for roofs over their heads. All over America, laws are in place that criminalize the most basic and necessary human activities, and “Quality of Life” ordinances take into consideration only the quality of housed people’s lives.

Everywhere, “sweeps” and “cleanups” take from people experiencing homeless even the precarious communities they form in vacant lots and under highways. The constant message is, “Move on, get out of here, go somewhere else.” But where?

Less than a week ago, this news came from Colorado:

Today, March 8th, the City Officials of Denver under Mayor Hancock used an “order of removal” ordinance to enable Public Works to decide what is an “encumbrance.” They used this “law” to force everyone out of the area and take away people’s tarps, blankets, and other belongings… Roughly 75 people were displaced from the places they have called home — many of whom for many months or even years. There is no legal option for almost anyone for where to go to.

As far back as last August Ed Lee, the mayor of San Francisco, California, told the press that the homeless would have to leave before Super Bowl time came around. By November, people experiencing homelessness were being pushed out of downtown.

In a city with an estimated 7,000 homeless residents, it is not easy to get them all out of sight so that tourists won’t be bummed out by their presence. City workers “herded” as many people as possible to a new place under a freeway. Typical was a fellow named Oscar McKinney, whose situation was described by journalist Evelyn Nieves:

City workers had removed his possessions right in front of him, he said, including all his identification papers. “They even got my teeth,” he said, displaying a wry, hollow smile. If they come around again, he said, he has no idea where he’ll go.

Meanwhile, the Super Bowl organizers were making sure that no homeless people would get fancy ideas about benefiting from the upcoming city-wide party. No free events would be accessible to them, because no one carrying a tent or a sleeping bag would be allowed to enter.

Sam Dodge, the mayor’s homeless czar, offered a typically callous statement to The Wall Street Journal reporter Stu Woo:

He said the homeless could likely retrieve confiscated belongings at city storage.

In “The Criminalization of Ownership,” House the Homeless has examined that particular fairytale. Another instance of unintentional humor arose after the football festival was over, as expressed in this headline from The Guardian: “Homeless ordered to vacate camp they were pressured into before Super Bowl.”

People who had previously existed in the areas most needed for the celebrations had been moved, in some cases, to shelters, but many were forcibly guided to the underside of a highway overpass. Three weeks after the big game, the public health department wanted them out of there within 72 hours of when the eviction order was issued, largely because of accumulated human waste and general trash.

Did the city not provide portable toilets or dumpsters? Apparently not. A statement from the director of health, Barbara Garcia, said:

Conditions where multiple tents are congregated have become unsafe. People are living without access to running water, bathrooms, trash disposal or safe heating or cooking facilities.

The solution that seemed good to the city authorities was make the people go find some other location without running water, bathrooms, trash disposal, or safe heating or cooking facilities.

Reactions?

Source: “City Sweeps People Without Homes from All the Blocks by Lawrence/Broadway/Park Ave,” wraaphome.org, 03/09/16
Source: “‘They’re Herding Us Like Cattle’: How San Francisco’s Homeless and the City Are Paying Dearly for Superbowl 50,” Alternet.org, 01/28/16
Source: “The Vanishing Homeless of Super Bowl 50,” WSJ.com, 02/02/16
Source: “Homeless ordered to vacate camp they were pressured into before Super Bowl,” TheGuardian.com, 02/25/16

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Catching Up With Austin

homeless-person-in-trashbagAustin, Texas, is often our subject because House the Homeless was founded here 27 years ago and has played a major role ever since in reversing the tide of homelessness. Austin is important for other reasons. It is a progressive city inside a state that in many ways lags behind other places, when it comes to addressing social issues. But Austin definitely tries!

Interesting things have happened over the past few years. In the fall of 2012, the police chief publicly expressed his feelings about the importance, in his eyes, of moving organizations like the Austin Resource Center for the homeless, the Salvation Army, and Caritas out of the city center.

In the spring of March 2014, a group called Austin Atheists Helping the Homeless got some media attention when a volunteer known as Angel talked about the 5-year-old organization, which she and her husband had been donating energy to for several months. They had been looking for something useful they could do as a family, and found it there, working with not only adults but kids of all ages who collected and sorted useful items.

Angel told reporter Amy Roth:

We focus solely on distributing basic living items to people experiencing homelessness. Tangible donations are accepted year round then distributed once a month at “giveaways.”

We set up our tables in the same parking lot as faith-based groups… [W]e make it a point not to preach…

I know our efforts won’t eradicate homelessness. It’s a systemic problem that’s too complex to be solved by an hour-long giveaway once a month. If what we do helps someone get through the next few days, that’s success.

Meanwhile, the Affordable Housing Bond had been approved by voters, allowing the city to borrow $65 million for the purpose of increasing both rental and ownership housing, as well as preserving the city’s existing affordable housing. In the fall of 2014, we reported on Austin’s innovative Community First Village.

The new year of 2015 began, and House the Homeless president Richard R. Troxell told the Statesman about the $8,000 raised by Hill Country Middle School for the annual thermal underwear gift party. This was followed by our reportage on the annual House the Homeless survey, which last year concerned relationships with the police.

Last fall, Austin was deeply concerned with completing its self-assigned task of bringing all homeless veterans in off the street, a mission complicated by the fact that the number of local homeless veterans had doubled since the previous year. This may not have been an actual increase in people, but significant of better methods of keeping track of them. House the Homeless observed Veterans Day with its usual attention, and our pages also featured a piece called “Life and Death in Homeless Austin.”

Austin-Travis County Integral Care announced its plan to break ground for the Housing First Oak Springs facility, a 40,000 square foot property that will contain 50 efficiency apartments and a clinic. Nadia Galindo reported:

Austin-Travis County Integral Care began using the Housing First model in 2013. They placed 200 people in apartments across the community, two years later, 88 percent remain housed and used 70 percent less emergency and clinical services.

Last month, local media reported on some of the difficulties that veterans still have even when established in living spaces. A home is more than a roof, and needs working plumbing, up-to-code electricity, smoke detectors and so on. Apparently, some landlords believe it is no longer their responsibility to maintain rental properties in livable condition, but want public money or donations to repair the buildings they own.

Just a few days ago, Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO) announced that the most recent count of people experiencing homelessness revealed a 20% increase,  although again, this may be the result of better canvassing methods or a growing willingness of people to be counted.

Either way, there appear to be 400 more people living in shelters and on the streets of Austin, than there were at the last count. Fox7Austin interviewed Richard R. Troxell,  who pointed to the low minimum wage and the high cost of living, and went on to speak of the newly discovered extensive link between homelessness and Traumatic Brain Injury.

Reporter Jennifer Kendall summed up:

House the Homeless and ECHO both agree the best way to help those experiencing homelessness in Travis County is to find them shelter, but ECHO said during their annual count they found no empty beds at Austin’s shelters.

So, unless more landlords step up to offer affordable housing to homeless people in the city, anyone new who comes to the area will not have a shelter to stay in.

Reactions?

Source: “Austin police chief wants homeless services out of his backyard,” blogspot.com, 09/21/12
Source: “Do Better Challenge: Austin Atheists Helping the Homeless,” skepckick.org, 03/18/14
Source: “Lack of available housing a challenge for advocates of Austin’s homeless,” impactnews.com, 07/23/14
Source: “House the Homeless lends helping hand,” Statesman.com, 01/08/15
Source: “City working to find housing for Austin’s homeless veterans,” FOX7Austin.com, 10/08/15
Source: “New homeless housing complex to be built in East Austin,” KEYETV.com, 11/13/15
Source: “Homeless veteran placed in home teeming with code violations,” KXAN.com, 01/15/16
Source: “Austin sees 20 percent increase in homeless population,” KHOU.com, 03/03/16
Source: “Annual count of homeless in Travis County shows 20 percent increase,” Fox7Austin.com, 03/03/16
Photo credit: elizaIO via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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The Challenge of Homeless Children

homeless-children-sleeping

House the Homeless has spoken about the urgency of telling potential presidential candidates what we think is important. Keeping families together is maximally important.

It has long been obvious that one person working a minimum wage job can barely support herself or himself. With kids, the situation becomes desperate. When a person is called upon to do two different things at the same time, like hold a job and be the sole parent, the awful stress of trying to do the impossible has a bad effect on health and mental stability. Even if there are two parents, if one has a low-paying job and the other takes care of the kids, they are teetering on the edge of homelessness if not homeless already.

The number of families living in garages and basements is larger than official statistics would indicate. But in recent years, even if both parents work, or one parent holds two jobs, in many places they still can’t afford a place to live that includes such amenities as running water, electricity, outdoor space for kids to play, or indoor space for them to do school assignments.

The flyover states

Too often, a cruel Catch-22 comes into play. There are plenty of places in the United States where the rent is relatively low. Unfortunately, such a place is unlikely to offer the luxury of employment. Journalist Alexis Rosado quotes experts from Volunteers of America and Homeless Angels, to the effect that, although most people don’t realize it, families with children make up a huge proportion of the homeless population. This is certainly true in middle America.

Just last week, WLNS in Lansing, Michigan, profiled a family that has been experiencing homelessness for about two years since the father lost his job and couldn’t find another. Lansing only has two facilities where families can stay together, and then only for a short time. A lot of other cities don’t even have that much.

Audacious programs

Kids in tumultuous situations are prone to physical, emotional, social, and developmental problems, or all four kinds at once. In Oakland, CA, the Center for the Vulnerable Child (CVC) focuses on children whose lives are impacted by homelessness, family disruption (often a polite way of saying that a parent is locked up), abuse, neglect, violence, poverty, and other chaotic influences. Cheryl Zlotnick published a book titled Children Living in Transition, which describes the organization’s focus:

[…] this text recommends strategies for delivering mental health and intensive case-management services that maintain family integrity and stability.
[…] this volume outlines culturally sensitive practices to engage families that feel disrespected by the assistance of helping professionals or betrayed by their forgotten promises. Chapters discuss the Center’s staffers’ attempt to trace the influence of power, privilege, and beliefs on their education and their approach to treatment.

The CVC offers developmental screening, education in parenting, therapy for both individuals and families, and case management. It is connected with many programs that serve niche demographics, like foster kids who need medical care, or children who seem likely to fail out of kindergarten, so clients can be referred to numerous consulting specialists.

In nearby San Francisco, the Homeless Youth Alliance works with a very different group – youth designated as “unaccompanied,” who are either alienated from their families or who have aged out of foster care and never had families. They are encouraged to be more than the passive recipients of services. There is a neighborhood beautification crew that increases pride and earns good will, and the opportunity is always open to work as an outreach counselor.

Funded mostly by foundations and private donors, the HYA encourages people to accept challenge and be the change they want to see in the world. To potential supporters, executive director Mary Howe issues a refreshingly honest call to action:

We want your money, your talent, your support and, more than anything, your ability to utilize your own voice to educate people of the root causes of poverty, homelessness, drug use and mental health challenges… Don’t just sit on your ass and complain about the state of things—stand up, do something and get involved in your community.

Circling back to our first paragraph, House the Homeless would like to remind everybody that now is an excellent time to get involved by raising our voices about what needs to be done on a national level. Any pubic figure who aspires to leadership should be hearing from us, and not just that we want more and better homeless shelters. No, we want improvement in all the circumstances and conditions that lead to homelessness, which are conveniently listed on the page titled “Mission: School the Candidates.”

Source: “Homeless family sees flaws in the system,” WLNS.com, 02/19/16
Source: “Children Living in Transition,” Columbia.edu, 2014
Source: “Create to Destroy! Homeless Youth Alliance,” MaximumRocknRoll.com, 10/22/13
Photo credit: Blemished Paradise via Visual hunt/CC BY-SA

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People Experiencing Homelessness are Stripped of Everything

A homeless woman

Emma Whitford related the harrowing story of a rainy night in East Harlem where several homeless people huddled beneath a protruding section of a building. City Parks Dept. workers showed up, along with some police officers.

According to participants, the people were not even given a chance to go out into the rain before the authorities began to load their belongings into a sanitation truck. In some cases, the police and/or city workers even shoved people to the ground and seized things that they held. The writer described the treatment of Anthony Rainey, a former Marine homeless since 1971:

Rainey says that most of his possessions were taken that morning as well—everything but an electronic benefit transfer card and credit card that happened to be in his pocket. Rainey lost his Veterans ID card, which he uses to ride public transportation free of charge and purchase clothing wholesale, plus family photographs, his birth certificate, hospital records, sweatshirts and jackets, and the CDs and chargers that he sells on the street.

Whitford also quoted Floyd Parks:

I grabbed my cart and was trying to get my stuff out, and the [officer]… just took my stuff and threw it in the [truck], and just crushed it up. And I said, ‘Yo, I got personal property.’ They said, ‘Too bad.’

Apparently, the same kind of gratuitous, random confiscation happens on a regular basis all over America. Of course, no one wants piles of junk everywhere. But reasonable measures can be taken to keep a city looking neat, without seizing people’s documents, or the things they are holding. In that New York incident, there was not even pretense of storing possessions to be picked up later. It went straight to the trash compacter.

Somewhere in Middle America

For a while, some of the people experiencing homelessness in Madison WI had been storing belongings in a supervised area at the Social Justice Center, but more space was needed downtown. The front steps of the City-County building took up some of the slack, an untenable situation that was never meant to last.

Last spring, city workers put up two enclosures across the street from there, out back of the Municipal Building, which took up part of the parking lot and probably annoyed some citizens for that reason alone. The doorless “chain-link boxes” were not equipped with shelves or dividers of any kind, so things were just bundled in there any which way. There were tarps across the top, but the sides were wide open to the weather. There was no supervision or security, so items were stolen and their owners were upset.

The authorities contended that advocates for the homeless had promised to look after the storage area. They charged that people were using the space for illegal and immoral activities, and closed the minimalistic wire shed at the end of July. Dean Mosiman wrote,

Belongings were to be removed from the facility by 2 p.m. Wednesday, with the city considering anything remaining as lost property and collected and bagged by city staff and stored off site for up to 45 days. Items that are worth less than $50, hazardous, perishable or with no sentimental, medical or legal value could be disposed immediately.

That sounds pretty reasonable, but veterans of America’s streets have learned that items do not always arrive at destinations named by city workers. Several other issues arose, and it was pointed out that a firm agreement should have been made, and thoroughly understood by both sides, before the project was undertaken.

A great public relations opportunity was lost in Madison, and a lot of potential good will was squandered, that might otherwise have accrued to both sides. Imagine what might have happened if a capable organizer with a few devoted colleagues had been in the right place at the right time. It could have been a model project, illustrating how responsible people can be, even when they are not housed, and proving that they deserve to have fair treatment and jobs and places to sleep and all that good stuff. Just like, you know, regular people.

Richard R. Troxell, co-founder of House the Homeless, suggests that “The best way to avoid the criminalization of people experiencing homelessness, and these kinds of abuses, is simply to house them.” On the way to that goal, the Wisconsin State Journal‘s Chris Rickert asks,

It’s hard not to wonder: If city officials can’t work with the homeless and their advocates on something so seemingly simple, how are they going to work together on more pressing needs — such as more shelter space, housing and mental health and substance abuse treatment?

Reactions?

Source: “Video: NYPD Destroyed Birth Certificates, Medication, IDs In East Harlem Homeless Raid,” Gothamist.com. 10/13/15
Source: “Madison closes storage area for homeless belongings,” madison.com, 07/22/15
Source: “Chris Rickert: No hindsight needed to identify problems with homeless’ storage space,
Madison.com, 08/09/15
Image by bopswave

 

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The Criminalization of Ownership

Cart and CarsHere we are in America, where private property rights are sacred, except for the people who own the least. The general housed public has a strange double-standard attitude. Upright citizens who are unable to pack for a weekend without incurring baggage overweight charges, are scornful of people experiencing homelessness who dare to keep a few belongings.

People with an overdose of righteousness get all bent out of shape because homeless people have cell phones. Has no one noticed that the pay phones are all gone? How is a person supposed to make appointments with helpful agencies, or contact prospective employers, or even call the police or fire department to report an emergency?

Say you’re a homeless person who was lucky enough to score a good, warm coat that fits and has all its buttons. What do you do when warm weather comes? Keep wearing it, and suffer the discomfort of being too warm? And be branded mentally incompetent, because wearing clothes inappropriate for the weather is a sign of schizophrenia? Or carry the coat around all summer, in addition to your bedroll and backpack?

Not in my back yard

In an online forum, you might find a message from an average homeowner who has discovered a cache of someone’s belongings on his property. He has a certain amount of compassion, and wants to be a good guy. Others reply with warnings that the bundle might contain drugs, a weapon, stolen goods, or something else that could get the homeowner in trouble. It might contain a blanket infested with bedbugs. There is a notion (spread by the firefighters in at least one city) that a homeless person, rather than simply abandoning unwanted belongings, prefers to burn them – and nobody wants a fire out by the garage.

There is another downside. Suppose a kind-hearted property owner allows someone to stash belongings. What about the neighbors or the occasionally patrolling cops? When trying to access his or her own stuff, that homeless person could be arrested for trespassing, or even summarily shot. But stuff needs to be somewhere.

Necessities of life

People have blankets, clothing, maybe a nicer pair of shoes, hygiene items and medicines that they can’t carry around every minute. They have documents, lists of phone numbers for services and other helpful contacts, and treasured family photos. They might even have money they’re saving up to try and rent a place to live. Carrying everything at all times isn’t safe. Last fall, Buffalo saw a marked increase in robberies of homeless people by street criminals, and it happens everywhere.

Many shelters have neither the space nor the desire to let people bring along all their stuff. The alternative is to find a safe spot, out in the big cruel world, to tuck a few things into a niche or an alcove or under a bush or up a tree in a park, and that is increasingly difficult. People’s belongings are seized if found “abandoned,” and often even if the person is right there on the spot. The Fourth Amendment is supposed to forbid this kind of thing, and judges have struck down such policies in Fresno, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Miami, but cities keep on doing it anyway. The ordinances that enable these warrantless seizures criminalize homelessness.

They never learn

At the end of 2014, Tucson AZ made the news when homeless organizers pushed back against the three-item rule. People were actually being arrested for owning more than a blanket, bedroll, and beverage. Activists struggled for four years before a U.S. District Judge finally granted an injunction to end this – which doesn’t mean it has ended. Early in 2015, Chicago was embroiled in a similar battle. For the Sun-Times, Mark Brown interviewed, among others, a Marine Corps veteran who had been deprived of everything he owned, four different times.

All homeless people are allowed to keep only “portable personal possessions” defined as a “sleeping bag or bedroll, not more than two coats, not more than two pairs of shoes or boots, not more than five blankets, and not more than three bags or suitcases, and such contents as may be contained in said bags or suitcases.”
In the winter months, they can have five more blankets and another sleeping bag.

Last summer, in preparation for a rock concert, Chicago authorities decreed that a neatly organized 20-tent settlement had to be moved from under a bridge, at least temporarily. Supposedly some kind of agreement was in place about sufficient notice, which may or may not have been given, depending on who tells the story. City workers started before the designated time, and threw away blankets, clothing, and other property, rather than store the items and notify people how to recover them, as had supposedly been agreed. The Department of Family and Support Services was supposed to be on hand to help relocate the people and their possessions, and showed up late when the city crews had already disposed of many things. Even when a Chicago Coalition for the Homeless lawyer showed up, the pillaging continued. Journalist Melissa Muto wrote,

Rene Heybach… told them they were in violation of the city agreement. But Heybach said that none of the workers she spoke to Tuesday had been properly trained in that protocol, and none of them, including the supervisor, had even heard of it.

What goes on in these cases? Every agency has telephones and computers. There is no excuse for such a lack of communication. Why is everything so confused and uncoordinated? The following month, Ethan Walker reported on the situation in Berkeley, CA. It was, ironically, at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park that police seized from four homeless men everything except the clothes they stood up in. Allegedly the belongings were taken to a storage facility. According to homeless activist Mike Zint, the same scenario had been repeated hundreds of times in Berkeley, and more often than not, the seized property was destroyed rather than stored.

Zint said he has lost his property to the police seven times in four years. He said the police came, usually at night, and often cited him for breaking Penal Code 647e, which states that lodging in any place, public or private, without the permission of the owner is an act of disorderly conduct. The police then took his gear as evidence of his violation.

Activist Diane Kimes added,

The personal belongings which had value to their owners were immediately hauled off, while the garbage was left there to rot by the city. Obviously, this isn’t about keeping public space clean and safe–it’s about making life insupportable for those who have nothing…

Reactions?

Source: “Court: Confiscation rules at Tucson park unfair to homeless,” Tucson.com, 12/26/14
Source: “City agrees to be more respectful of homeless belongings,” SunTimes,com, 02/11/15
Source: “Mumford and Sons’ concert displaces homeless,” WBEZ.org, 06/19/15
Source: “Homeless in Berkeley must ‘rebuild’ after police remove property,” DailyCal.org, 07/08/15
Image by urbansnaps – kennymc

 

 

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How to Become Homeless—Yes, Even You

JoyThe Weingart Center is a venerable Skid Row institution that offers shelter, job training and counseling. Los Angeles Times writer Sandy Banks interviewed Maxene Johnston, who was in charge of it for 10 years, and learned this:

Her time in the trenches taught her that most people with nowhere to live fell into one of three groups: the derailed, the disabled or the dysfunctional. The derailed are ordinary people hobbled by bad luck…The disabled have mental or physical issues that make it hard to live on their own…The dysfunctional are chronic street dwellers, with limitations that can’t be addressed with short-term help… There are as many back stories as there are broken and desperate people.

The point Johnston makes is that all the people in these subdivisions are still part of the public, the citizenry whose safety and wellbeing the civic authorities are charged with protecting. The derailed, of course, are the easiest to help, and also the easiest to become one of. Life is so precarious that just about everyone is at some degree of risk for becoming homeless. Today we look at a few random ways in which this can happen.

A Davenport, Iowa, mother of five was shown a rental house by “the most wonderful man I ever met in my life” and gave him a $1,300 deposit—all the money she had. Then he disappeared, and even a local news station was unable to help her trace the thief.

An article by Senior Advocate Liza Horvath outlines some of the many ways in which the elderly can be scammed out of their homes and savings, and prefaces the list with strong words:

A rapacious, marauding predator is taking hold in America and it is growing stronger, smarter, meaner and more aggressive each passing minute… If left unchecked it will take everything they have earned and saved throughout a lifetime and dump them—homeless and destitute into the mean streets.

A Rhode Island couple bought a house, sold their old house, and wound up out in the cold. At the last minute, their Realtor told the would-be buyers that “because [a law firm] had failed to provide proper notification of foreclosure, we’d be unable to obtain title insurance.” The firm’s branches in a nearby state had already been under investigation because their practices looked very much like those of a “foreclosure mill,” a well-known variety of illegal enterprise. Yet the error in this case could so plausibly have been an honest (and still unconscionable) mistake, it gave the Attorney General’s subsequent inquiry very little to work with. And the couple, of course, could not get their old house back.

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the Andrews family learned the hard way that when the city condemns a building, the tenants have to leave immediately. It wasn’t Robin Andrews’s fault that the balcony of a 4th-floor apartment collapsed, or that everyone in the building had to get out right away. His employer paid for the initial week in a motel room for the couple and their three children. Andrews expected to get his $900 security deposit back from the old landlord, but instead was cheated out of it. The result? No resources and nowhere to go.

Everyone has a story, and listening to too many of them at once can have an impact on the hearer. But now, the theme takes a turn. As we have seen, in Florida many volunteer teams of military veterans search the urban areas and the wilderness for their lost brothers. Last year a survey was taken—and bear in mind, this was just one county, Hillsborough, which includes the city of Tampa.

Of the 236 veterans counted…109 said they didn’t know exactly why they were homeless.

Reactions?

Source: “Garcetti, City Council throw homeless problem to the police,” LATimes.com, 07/03/15
Source: “Davenport mom and kids homeless after internet scam,” WQAD.com, 10/14/13
Source: “Scammers can leave seniors homeless,” MonteryHerald.com, 10/31/14
Source: “I-Team: Law firm mistake leaves couple without home,” turnto10.com, 10/28/13
Source: “Family left homeless after balcony collapse,” 620wtmj, 10/10/13
Source: “Number of homeless veterans in the area spikes,” Tbo.com, 05/11/14
Image by Pedro Ribeiro Simões

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